In honor of my recent milestone birthday, my longtime friend Felicia created an incredible trip down memory lane of our trips over the years in a slideshow. The photos she dug up were pure gold, dating back to our university semester in Paris with multiple European weekenders and benders. One of the best benders was in Italy as two tall, friendly, 20-year-old Americans — “bookends” of contrasting colors.
Felicia could pass for Italian but I blew her cover at every venue, which made people curious, especially Italian men. This worked out in our favor, providing free “tour guides” in each city we visited: Venice, Florence and Rome. With these ultimate insiders, we saw and did more in a week than locals normally do in a year.
Our adventure began in “serene” Venice. Felicia and I fed pigeons in Piazza San Marco (one of which landed on my head), photographed Doge’s Palace and numerous stately churches, bought Murano glass in as many ways as poor college students could afford (i.e., bracelets and keychains), ate tiramisu in its arguable birthplace, wandered through mazes of narrow streets, walked over Rialto Bridge, took water taxis through many canals and got serenaded by gondoliers. “O, Sole Mio!”
We had a personalized tour of the nearby island Lido by a guy who looked like Sylvester Stallone and another Mimmo. Again, we practiced our French … and the guys attempted to practice French kissing. “Sylvester” whisked me away to the top of some lookout and Mimmo hoped to get some alone time with Felicia in a rooftop storage closet. She passed on his eager advances and came looking for me.
“Angela? Where are you?” she asked, laughing about Mimmo’s den of iniquity.
Given that Sylvester barely spoke French and no English and I spoke little Italian, our communication quickly came to a standstill so I was happy to be found. We ditched our suitors and led ourselves out of Lido.
The next stop on our Eurail pass through Italy was Florence, “cradle of the Renaissance” and home of all things Michelangelo. We saw its famous Uffizi, Accademia (home to the statue David) and Pitti Palace art museums; Cathedral and churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce; locks of love on the Ponte Vecchio; Boboli Gardens; and practically every nightclub in the city.
Not long after arriving at our first bar, aptly named La Dolce Vita, we met our nightlife guides: Pino, Mimmo, Ernesto and Giorgio. All were from Calabria but had come to Florence for school. They took it upon themselves to show us a good time that weekend, including making us dinner, showing us breathtaking views from Fiesole (where my sister got married years later by the way) and dancing all night at clubs. I remember thinking Pino was a cigarette fire hazard with all the gel in his slicked back “helmet” hair, which his hands moved around in an “I’m Too Sexy for my Shirt” fashion on a platform on the dance floor. His black leather jacket went well with his jet black hair and his red trousers blended in with other Italian men except for his British ascot. The other guys were less fashion-forward but fun as all get out.
One evening, we were invited over to Mimmo’s apartment for a homemade pasta dinner. We were given lessons on how to roll spaghetti with a fork (no, not a spoon, Dutch people) and serenaded with a guitar and five guys singing in a kitchen with wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a whole leg of prosciutto. It was the quintessential Italian experience.
But it ended with a few crushes. Pino, who came up to my chest in height, was hellbent on getting to know me as well as possible before we left town. He spent days trying to convince me in French why I should have an affair with him. Persistent as he was charming, he would not take no or any reason for an answer. Finally, in my youthful desperation to get Pino off my back (almost literally), I told him he was too short for me … even though he lived tall. It was a low blow but it worked.
“Well someday, Angela, I hope I meet a woman like you who prefers short men!” he said dramatically, whisking his gel-laden hair, and walked away as the sun rose and Felicia and I left for our train.
That was the last time we saw Pino in person. (Years later, Felicia spotted him as an actor in the last scene of the movie “The English Patient!”)
Finally, Felicia and I roamed Rome for two days. Day one was largely spent at The Vatican, touring St. Peter’s Basilica (sadly, the Sistine Chapel was closed for renovation). Day two was an action-packed tour of the rest of Rome’s ancient relics, starting at the Pantheon. There, good fortune smiled upon us again … ironically, after a pigeon pooed in Felicia’s hair. While she was busy trying to get it out, a man approached us with a postcard that read:
To my dream girls,
Please come back inside and see me at the reception counter. My friend and I would like to give you a tour of Rome.
Mama, Mimmo, another one! Of course, curiosity got us to meet this bold Italian. He was sweet with round glasses and curly hair. His messenger, Emmanuel, was a private detective (go figure). Mimmo was about to get off work and his buddy had come round to pick him up. But instead, they picked us up, offering to show us Rome for the day. It turns out that Mimmo used to be a professional tour guide so he knew insider spots like The Aventine Keyhole. Plus, our tour was by motorbike and motor scooter! It doesn’t get more Italian than that.
Until the mother of the guy you’re with makes you lunch upon first meeting … That’s right, Mimmo’s mom prepared us all a beautiful pasta lunch. Mama mia, mama Mimmo! I can only imagine what he said when he called her to say there would be four instead of two. Something like:
“Mama, two girls just arrived from America. Please make an extra good lunch. I want to impress them. This is their last day in Rome!”
The wooing abruptly stopped when Mimmo’s motor scooter, designed for one person with a bicycle seat, broke down with me on the back of it en route to his mother’s house. Emmanuel, who had a proper motorbike (and two helmets versus none like Mimmo), drove us one at a time to lunch, which thankfully, was not far away given the size of Rome.
After meeting mama and eating to our heart’s content, the guys continued our tour on foot. They showed us the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain. The day ended with the guys buying us gelato, which we ate on the famous Spanish Steps. After hours of sightseeing and eating, they helped us retrieve our luggage and escorted us to the train station.
“Thank you for this beautiful day,” they said, giving us two airbrush kisses each on the cheeks. “It was a pleasure to walk around with you and be seen with you. Please send us a postcard from America.”
Wow, they were the perfect gentlemen. Bravo! Bellissimo!
Italy’s ancient architecture, art and fashion could not hold a candle to the charm and spirit of Italians. You just could not hold a candle to their hair, get lured into a storage closet or ride double on a motor scooter made for one.