What do cups of gobsmacking good coffee, a broken-down rented car, and dribbles of tart balsamic vinegar out-the-wazoo all have in common?
My recent whirlwind vacation to Bella Italia!
Brother Aaron and Girlfriend Alya came from Moscow, and we rented an apartment for the weekend with Peter the high school friend. Use the words "fruit flies" and "sense of taste" in the same sentence and Peter, it turns out, can tell you anything you'd like to know. Imagine the possibilities. (Alya and I didn't need to, since they reverted to a state of teenage-boy for the duration. I laughed my bum off, though, so I can't complain.)
In Rome, we did the typical tourist stuff like the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Roman Forum, Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele, Trastevere, and a smattering of the city's so-called best gelato. (They got nuthin' on Bologna.)
But I also got to do some research for a story I'd like to write about an old store in Roma, and saw an old friend from the embassy, and had the most amazing espresso macchiato at my favorite, the Cafe della Pace. There's nothing quite like waking up with a caramel-colored shot of energy and watching the townsfolk unfold over streets where steep jutting buildings the color of rust tilt overhead, and the branches of lush wild ivy swing in the breeze.
We spent a lovely afternoon with Giorgio Barbieri and his wife, Giovanna, as they explained the vinegar process to the three of us. I asked more in-depth questions, and we watched as G iovanna used the glass thief (essentially a huge glass dropper without the squeegee part and instead a hole she covered with her thumb to activate suction) to mix the liquid in the barrell before dripping a bit of the vinegar from different barrels onto our spoons, to see how it tastes differently at each stage. There was such a range of sweetness, tartness, puckering levels and deep rich flavors, my vocabulary wasn't advanced enough to describe the tastes. Too bad Peter wasn't there. The vinegar aged in juniper wood tasted like a forest, while the cherry-aged vinegar was like a rich dessert wine.
We bought a ton of vinegar, met up with Italian friends for dinner (of a RARE steak drenched in thick black vinegar sauce) in Modena, and afterward, late on a rainy Sunday night in a sleepy Italian town, found our car wouldn't start. We dialed for help at the Sicilian car rental company aptly named "Ciao Cars" (should have been out first clue) and after waiting three hours for a mechanic to arrive and tell us there was nothing he could do, said "Ciao" to the car, and took a taxi to Bologna. Upon our arrival there, we buzzed up to the centrally-located hotel where I had managed a last-minute inexpensive booking and were stunned to hear,
--Signori, we are all full tonight. I have no booking for you.
"But, Signora," I argued passionately, "that is impossible. I just spoke with you an hour ago to make our reservation!!"
"Yes, I did! I called this number--" and I told her the number I had written down from a phone book with all the other Bologna hotels.
--Signorina, that is not our hotel. Our hotel is this number...
Alya spouted peals of laughter in a semi-hilarious state. Aaron scoffed in mild irritation and rolled his eyes in utter disbelief. I colored, realized I had reserved us at a completely different hotel, and apologized for waking the Signora.
"Where is our hotel?" Alya managed to get out between laughs. Sad part was, I didn't know. Then I called the number I had been dialing all night and asked for directions, becoming even more embarrassed at my mistake when I heard the words "Across from Hospital Sant'Orsola." I had forgotten many things about Bologna, but the distance of the hospital from the city center was not one of them.
We laughed our way to the hotel in a cab, and strategized how we would get the car company to cover our taxi and hotel expenses.
Bologna was a dream. Cobblestone streets, orange-washed stucco walls, old men in corduroy caps milling about the piazza, lasagne stacked high, gelato cones, leather shoes at the Montagnola market, walking around in drizzling weather yet staying dry under the porticoes...
I spent one afternoon on my own, taking the train to Florence to see my old friends at the frame shop whom I am writing about for an upcoming article (keep your fingers crossed). GianCarlo (of the American soldier story, for those who know it), came right down when I called from the shop to tell him I was there. Here's a picture of him talking in the shop. Don't miss the nudie poster in the background.