Monday, May 21, 2012

The final installment in our Italian adventure . . . or to be continued?

May 7, 2012
Our six-month experiment in Italian living has ended. We fly back today. Lucy and I have held many discussions in the last month about our conclusions and what will come next. From the start, we knew we could have three possible outcomes.

First, we could decide that we want to live in Italy more or less full time. Granted, we still need to work at least five months a year to support ourselves, but we could spend the other seven months in Italy, in which case we would need to sell something in the United States and buy a house or apartment in Italy. We have looked at several places near San Salvatore that we really like, one in the heart of Montecarlo and another just outside Altopascio.

Or we could conclude that we have spent enough time here already, and it is time to focus our free time in another direction—other hobbies, other countries. I have, after all, already exceeded my expectations in discovering family roots, I have discovered the tie with the West Seattle Spadoni family and we have re-opened the connection with our Seghieri relatives.

The third alternative is to continue to come to Italy for about three months a year, in which case it would make the most sense to rent a room as we have done the past two years. If we take this route, it probably is best to keep coming back to our room at the Casolare.

Option two doesn’t seem likely, as our initial infatuation with Italy has turned into an abiding relationship. Like all good romances, we have become aware of our paramour’s flaws, but we are willing to overlook them for the sake of our love. We can’t see turning our backs on this place.

But should we commit our entire future to Italy? We have been leaning away from this idea in our conversations. Sometimes I say it would be easier to make this decision if we didn’t have such comfortable and satisfying lives in Gig Harbor. Our house has a beautiful view of Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains, and I enjoy my work. We live surrounded by American cugini, fratelli, figli and nipoti already, and we have no language barrier to overcome in communicating with them.

Claudia's mom and one of Luca and Claudia's twins.
It was actually during an Easter dinner at the Casolare that I realized beyond a doubt that Gig Harbor should remain our primary home. While enjoying the multiple-course feast of Italian delicacies and conversing as best we could with Claudia and her parents, we watched all the extended families engage in long, loud conversations. It was pleasant to watch, but it made me miss my family. One of the most important aspects of being Italian is keeping one’s family close, and ironically, I can’t do that if I am in Italy.

So we are taking the middle road. While keeping our feet planted in America, we will continue to come to Italy for about three months per year, renting, not buying. We will encourage family members and friends to visit while we are there. We will keep learning Italian and use the time to renew connections with our Italian relatives. We will try not to be frustrated at the slowness of the latter two goals. It’s hard enough trying to keep current with everyone on the American side—while also earning a living—so we just want to relax in Italy and develop relationships as opportunities arise. We will keep on collecting information on family history and trying to see if we can find more relatives in both countries. In this way, we hope to get the best of both worlds.

Thus, my blog entries will be infrequent in the coming months, as I focus on work and other more mundane activities of my U.S. life, but I may add an occasional update on family matters. We are planning a Gig Harbor-based Spadoni-Seghieri family reunion potluck for August 4. I am hereby issuing an open invitation to anyone of the Natucci, Donati or Capocchi families who have ties to a Spadoni or Seghieri, or anyone else who attended our family 4th of July parties in the past. Thanks for reading . . . and maybe I’ll see you in August.

Friday, May 18, 2012

More serious reflections on our cruise

Saturday, May 5
We were warned beforehand to buy a cruise from an American company, a Dutch company, a British company—anything but an Italian company. But we had a good rate on a ship leaving from an Italian port not far from where we were living, so we went with Costa Cruises. We signed up in January, paying only $527 per person for our five-day itinerary. Mandatory tips would add another $45 per person.

Looking inside Vesuvius, we saw a wiff of smoke coming out of this
little dome.
At about $115 per day per person, we found this to be an incredible bargain. If we were taking a round-trip ferry between each of the five destinations, we would pay almost that much just for transportation—and that wouldn’t include the cabin, complete meals, entertainment and the free spa service we received. We would give our experience a 5-star rating.

This is our first cruise ever, so we find it hard to make comparisons, but before the trip, we read some online reviews about Costa, and while the Italians generally gave high ratings, many of the reviews written in English were not as enthusiastic. Critics were mostly people who had taken cruises with other lines and found Costa lacking in customer service and organization, though they still praised the food in the restaurants. Some said the Italian passengers and crew members were standoffish or even rude.

We are in our final day of the cruise, and we have absolutely no complaints, although I can see why some would say it is a drawback to be a foreigner aboard a ship in which the majority of the passengers are Italian. One of the reasons people take cruises is to meet like-minded travelers. That is not likely to happen if one can’t speak the main language of the ship, so we can see why English-speaking passengers might be disappointed in this respect. Even though we speak enough Italian to get by, it is an effort for us to maintain a casual conversation with Italians. We met a nice Italian mother/daughter pair on our tour of Vesuvius, but other than that, our conversations with Italian speakers have been minimal.

A long-necked turtle. That not its name, but I forgot its actual name.
Another drawback is that the on-shore excursions offered by Costa are more limited for non-Italians. For example, of the 10 excursions available in Napoli, only two were offered with English-speaking guides. We went to Vesuvius anyway, even though the guides only spoke Italian. We just count that as part of our daily language lessons. We took only one other official Costa excursion, to the tortoise park in Corsica. Our bus had guides who spoke English and German, and we discovered a lot about the 130 different species of tortoises and turtles in the park. We learned that some rare turtles sell for 20,000 euro, that the oldest turtle was 255 years old, and that turtles were around in the age of dinosaurs. We even heard two of them barking. 

So we peered into the smoking crater of Vesuvius, explored Malta with a taxi driving tour guide, hiked up the hill in Cagliari, Sardegna, to visit an archeological museum, and saw turtles and tortoises of every size and description in Corsica. But still my strongest impression of the cruise is that we were treated almost like royalty, especially in our nearly private restaurant.

Without paying any additional fee, we somehow were assigned a Samsara suite, which gave us free use of the spa, two free massages (or one massage and a facial for Lucy), a free body metabolism test and consultation, and use of the Samsara dining room. I would say that maybe only 10 other couples had Samsara privileges, so we sometimes had the whole dining room to ourselves, with three attendants waiting to put our napkins in our laps, make sure we had enough antipasto, refill our drinks or brush bread crumbs off the table (I’m not exaggerating). In any other restaurant, the four-course meals we received would have cost in excess of $60 each, I have no doubt. Of course, we had a window seat each time and could watch the cities, islands and other boats slip by.

We were lucky enough to sit right next to a very pleasant American couple, two of only four Americans we met the entire week. Orlando was actually born in Italy but added American to his citizenship about 30 years ago, and Joy is a mixture of Thai, Portuguese and American. We went with them in Malta and Cagliari, and I’d have to say we would have felt a little lonely if we hadn’t met them—one of the drawbacks of going on an Italian ship to mostly Italian ports.

Overall, I’d have to agree that Americans would be best served by going with a cruise line that caters to Americans, with all the tours in English and the majority of the passengers English-speaking. For us, though, it was a great opportunity to continue our study of the language and culture while being totally pampered for a bargain price. I wouldnt have minded if it lasted a couple more days.

Going on a Costa cruise . . .
and I’m not scared

Friday, May 4
Some people have asked me if we had any fears about this trip, since it was a Costa ship, captained by Francesco Schettino, that famously foundered just off the island of Giglio in January, killing 32 people. We passed Giglio on our first day, but not surprisingly, we didn’t come very close.

If you haven’t read the accounts of that accident, you may not understand the following story, which I found by googling “captain schettino jokes.” It’s probably in poor taste to joke about such a tragedy, but I can’t resist repeating this account of a last-minute announcement made by the captain:  “This is Captain Schettino speaking on behalf of my crew. I’d like to welcome you aboard Costa Concordia from Rome.  We are currently crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Giglio Island. If you look out of the windows on the starboard side, you will observe a gaping hole. If you look out of the windows on the port side, you will observe that the ship is listing badly. If you look down towards the Mediterranean Sea, you will see a little yellow life raft with three people in it, waving at you. That’s me, Captain Schettino , the co-pilot, and my personal attendant. Arrivederci!”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Taxi driver/guide helps make white island of historical Malta memorable

Wednesday, May 2
Italy has a long history of foreign occupations, but located just south of Sicilia, the island nation of Malta may top Italy in that category. The known list, starting from around 700 BC, goes Greece, Phoenicia, Carthage, Rome, Byzantium. Then Goths and Vandals invaded and briefly took control before the Byzantines regained power, only to lose it to the Arabs. Then the Norman empire expelled the Arabs and Malta became part of the Kingdom of Sicily. Periods of German and Spanish rule followed. In 1530, the island was given to a military religious order which later became known as the Knights of Malta, but they were overcome by Napoleon’s French troops. The British helped toss the French out, and Malta asked Britain to provide protection and governance thereafter. Malta finally negotiated its independence from Britain in 1964.

While we are eating lunch with Orlando and Joy, our cruise ship docks at Malta’s main port, Valletta. With maps in hand, the four of us disembark with only a vague plan of attack. We could take the double-decker tour buses for 20 euro each, but we decide instead to share a 10-euro taxi ride to the other side of town and then walk back toward the ship. Once in the taxi, our driver, Patrick, tries to change our minds. For another 50 euro, he will take us to all the best spots on the island, each time waiting to take us to the next stop. At the end, he will take us back to the dock, and only then will we pay him.

At first we resist, but gradually we realize the logic of his explanation.  We had planned to go first to a one-hour movie called the Malta Experience, located on the other end of the city, but Patrick points out that two cruise ships have just landed, and everyone will be going to the movie. We might have to wait an hour and a half to get in. He recommends going to the 4 p.m. showing, when everyone else will be thinking about getting back to the ship. Meanwhile, he knows all the best tourist sites and can show us around. We talk it over and agree.

Big twisted trees and Lucy.
He takes us first to the upper presidential gardens, where we photograph flowers, trees, ducks and swans. Then we are off to Mdina, a walled city founded by the Phoenicians in 700 BC and for many years Malta’s capital. It sits on a hill overlooking Valletta. It is the highest location on the island, and during the ride, we see quite a bit of the landscape.

Valletta, where we are docked.
White is the first word that comes to mind when I think of how to describe Malta. The stone used as the primary building material is soft off-white sandstone that wears down more quickly than the marble and pietra serena usually used in Italy. The light color can be a bit glaring, but the finish is soft and porous and weathers unevenly, absorbing some light in its rugged surfaces.

Between locations, Patrick fills us in with more details about his island state. Children learn both Maltese and English at school, as both are official languages. Maltese is an amalgamation of many languages, mainly Italian, French, English and Arab. As it is located right in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta has always been a key stopover for ships, and it once had a strong industrial base. Now, however, tourism is the far and away the top domestic product.

Saint Paul's Cathedral in Medina.
Catholicism in the main religion, and Malta has a Christian tradition that started in the first century, when the Apostle Paul’s prison ship foundered on the beach during a storm. He stayed on for three months, during which time he was bitten by a snake and preached the gospel, leading to the conversion of one of the island’s principle leaders. St. Paul’s Bay, though, is on the other side of the island, and Patrick says we don’t have time to go there. However, it is believed that Paul lived in Mdina, so we have come close to seeing his footprints.

We stop off briefly to watch some Phoenician glass blowers at work. Supposedly they use different methods than the glass workers of Venezia, but our expertise ends with the knowledge that it is one hot job, and we are clueless of the fine points of technique.

Then we are off to the Malta experience, a movie that we watch using headphones, because it is offered in about 15 different languages. It is here that I discover the historical information I cited earlier about the various civilizations that have coveted and occupied Malta, which actually consists of five islands, with Malta and Gozo being the largest. One particularly brutal event occurred in 1551, when invading Barbary corsairs enslaved the entire population of Gozo, deporting 5,000 of the healthiest inhabitants to the Barbary Coast.

Patrick returns to our ship and collects his well-earned pay. This is an example of a time it is worthwhile having a personal guide, because we have seen much in a short time, and with four us to share the cost, it was only 15 euro per person for the guide and transportation (the movie was extra).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cruising with Costa

Monday, April 30
We’ve never been on a cruise before, but in January, we responded to a discount offer from American Airlines to sign up for a five-day Mediterranean trip with Costa, an Italian cruise line. The day after we signed up, Captain Francesco Schettino ran the Costa Concordia aground, killing 32 people. He added to his disgrace by abandoning ship before all the survivors were evacuated.

This is NOT our ship.
According to the accounts, he had altered course to bring the ship close to the island of Giglio to salute the family of his ship’s head chef, who lived on the island—sort of the marine equivalent of a “fly-by.” As I write this, he is under house arrest, waiting his day in court. But we are undaunted, as are 2,000 others who join us on a trip that begins in Savona, near the home of Christopher Columbus in Genova, and will take us to Napoli, Malta, Sardegna and Corsica before returning to Savona.

Before we board the luxurious new Costa Deliziosa, we had to take a run-down, dirty ferry from Olbia, Sardegna, to Genova, marking the end of our week in Sardegna’s Costa Smeralda. The Tirrenia ferry left Olbia at 10:30 p.m. and chugged northward for 15 hours. We did not spend the extra euros to book a cabin, but we did reserve airline-like seats so that we could lean back and sleep. As it turned out, many of the seats were empty, and all who dared could lie down, spreading themselves over three or four ragged and stained cloth-covered seats. I tried a spot on the floor in a corner, thinking it would be better for my back, but even fully clothed and with carpet underneath me, it was too cold and I had to move to the seats.

In the morning, we found an unoccupied table, where we read, played cards and Scrabble (Lucy won), and munched on food we had brought with us. The windows were so dirty we could barely see outside, but there is not much to see between Olbia and Genova anyway.

After overnighting in the cheap but clean Hotel Le Tre Stazioni in Genova, we hop a train for a 55- minute trip to Savona. Once we board our cruise ship, we have entered other world altogether. Our luggage is delivered to our sparkling modern cabin, and we are greeted by smiling employees everywhere, al l of whom want to help us find our way and answer our questions. Food is abundant, free and delicious. We attend an orientation session offered for English-speaking guests, most of whom are from other European countries or Asia.

One of our swimming pools.
Our dinner is a full-course Italian meal, and the serving sizes are just the right proportion so we can make it through the full meal without feeling uncomfortable. We dine next to Orlando and Joy, a couple about our age who live in New York but have foreign roots. Orlando grew up in Italy but moved to the states about 30 years ago, and Joy originally hailed from Thailand. Orlando also has dual citizenship, and he is able to give me some advice about obtaining Italian medical benefits that may someday come in handy.

Afterwards we sit through a performance by an Italian entertainer who is also able to sing in English, French and German. He does a nice job singing some Frank Sinatra songs, but his impression of Elvis Presley is laughable. It doesn’t help that he is about 50 years old and looks unnatural trying to swing his hips Elvis-style. I think he would have done much better with Dean Martin. But it’s hard to be critical of anything when we get three full meals a day, free spa service and are treated like royalty everywhere we turn.