Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Nonscientific Observation of Italy, Part 2: Transportation

I drive a car that, by American standards, is so small that one of my students once said to me, "Ms. W, why do you even park? Why don't you just pick up your car and carry it around in your purse?" As a normally-sized urban dweller with no children, I love my small car and small cars in general. I see no reason for so many of the monstrosities I see all over the road. But, in Italy, I did not see one Hummer, Navigator, or Denali. In the more rural areas, we did see 4x4 Suburus, Volvos, and occasional Rovers, but for the most part, the cars were small.

Really small.

And as expected, we saw mopeds, motorcycles, and bicycles everywhere; moreover, we saw all sorts of cars that just aren't available in the United States, makes of which I had never heard. ECG (the expert in all things automotive) tells me that every European country has at least one national brand, and these national brands are available all over the continent. One of our rental cars, a Renault completely unavailable in the United States, started without a key, but with a credit-card-like gizmo instead. We inserted it then pushed the start button.

For the most part, we loved driving in Italy. The small roads were dotted with small towns with big churches and bigger views, while the large roads were maintained to an incredible state of smooth, traveller-oriented perfection. The autostrades, the freeways of Italy, are maintained by funds from steep tolls, but those tolls are clearly put to good use. More than just well-marked and easy to navigate, the autostrades have another wonderful quality: the Autogrill.

Apparently, the Italian driving culture is one that believes in frequent, fully-replenishing stops. Every 60 kilometers or so, it seemed, we passed another Autogrill, some of them (as pictured above) straddling the autostrade. When we stopped to check our first out, I delighted in the good espresso and tasty food they served. ECG told me that yes, these were great, but wait until we stop for a meal at a truck stop in Germany someday—then I'll really learn the mighty splendor of road food. That may be the case, and I look forward to that day, but in the meantime, I'll fondly remember how good, how remarkably superior to American fast food joints that sprinkle freeway exits, the Autogrills and other roadside stops were.

Although we had heard about the difficulties of driving in Italy—people had warned us that it is nearly impossible to drive through the throngs of traffic in Rome, that no one paid attention to lane markings, and that braking happened unbelievably late and fast—we were surprised at the lack of road rage. Admittedly, in the concentrated areas it was harder to know what to expect out of our fellow drivers, but we didn't hear all the honking and swearing and see all the obscene gestures that we hear and see when driving in traffic here. When pedestrians crossed the street unexpectedly, everyone stopped and no one honked. It was remarkable.

I've written a whole lot about driving for someone who, in general, prefers to walk. Our honeymoon appealed to both ECG (the driver) and me (the walker) so much partly because we both got to do a whole lot of our preferred mode of transportation. People walked everywhere in Italy, down small country roads, through city streets, and up and down staircases. I found a lot of staircases with which to fall in love.

In Venice, no one drives, so everyone walks or takes a boat. We arrived in Venice by boat and left by boat, and walked while were there, marvelling at all the kinds of boats that populate in Venice. Everyone knows about the gondalas and vaporettos, but the private boats of the wealthy and the working boats of the laborers fascinated us. Before going to Venice, I knew that everything happened by boat, but I didn't realize what that really meant. We saw reconstruction happening on a house, and the workers hauled concrete, one bag at a time, out of a canoe to hand-pulley it up to the third floor. The garbage man arrived in a boat. Take a moment and imagine what it would be like if your garbage man arrived in a boat. Yeah. It was quiet. Inefficient? Terribly, but oh-so-quiet.

Like nearly everyone who visits Italy from another continent, ECG and I flew in and out. We flew in to Rome and had no problems in the airport. Nothing stands out in my memory of the Roman airport (Fiumicino), but that may just be because I was already running on very little sleep. However, the airport in Milan (Malpensa) is another story. This is the only event in all of our modes of transportation on the trip that ECG and I became frustrated. Frustrated is an understatement. In fact, frustrated is a very gross understatement, the kind of understatement that is so understated that it might as well be a word for something completely different than what we were experiencing.

We walked through the entire airport looking for the British Airways desks. There were no British Airways desks at any of the counters. The large computerized screens that listed the locations of airlines, next to British Airways, only listed this: --. I'm serious, just that: --. Finally, after walking through the entire airport twice and going to the Information desk to only find no one there, we encountered a small, perhaps 10" wide and 3 ½ foot tall computerized kiosk on which we could check in. Once we managed to check in there, the printout told us to bring our desks to the British Airways counter. Alas, if only we knew where that darned counter could possibly be.

As we stood there, lost and angry, a perfectly-proportioned British Airways stewardess ran towards us. She stopped just shy of us, her forehead beaded with sweat, and caught her breath. I don't know how she knew we were there, but she did, and she informed us that the airport moved the entire British Airways operation to a new counter in a new wing and that even the employees didn't know about the move until just that moment. You read that correctly. Malpensa moved British Airways without telling British Airways they were to be moved.

Alas. It sure was a beautiful airport though.

What to drink after you've driven, walked, boated, or flown in Italy (or anywhere else, for that matter):
Meyer Limoncello
I had never tasted limoncello before going to Italy, but knowing that I would drink it on my honeymoon, I started this recipe before I left anyway. I first sipped limoncello in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome, sitting at a square, trembling from cold and the constant excitement of being in Italy. Later in the trip, when I finally began to accept the reality of being in Italy, I sipped it again in an inn after a long day of driving. After months of steeping and maturing, my own limoncello is now finished, and it is lovely and delicious, and I get to remember the chilly taste of my honeymoon all hot summer long.

This recipe takes a while, but the wait is worth it. To learn to make it, I relied heavily on the excellent, detailed directions I found here. I adapted the directions towards what "felt" right for my tastes. Since I use organic sugar, my limoncello has a slightly more amber tint than a clear yellow, but to me, the amber-yellow color is still beautiful.

You will need:
20 clean, organic Meyer lemons
1 ½ liters of Everclear (for my first batch I used vodka, a suggestion I originally posted here, but the second batch worked MUCH better with Everclear)
2 cups filtered water
4 cups organic sugar
1 large, at least 2 liter sized glass canister (like the kind used to make suntea)
2 clean, sealing, 1 liter glass bottles
about 3 months of time

To make the limoncello:
First, make sure that your lemons are completely clean; wash them well and dry them. Using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel the yellow zest off of each lemon in strips. Do your best to not include any of the white pith in the strips. Place the lemon zest in the large canister and pour the vodka over it. Lid the canister and swirl the mixture. To protect the mixture from light and temperature fluctuations, place the canister in a dark, cool place and swirl it every few days to release the oils from peel. Do not open the canister for two months (although, if you're anything like me, you'll be dying to, just out of curiosity).

After two months have passed, create a simple syrup by combining the sugar with the water and heating, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has melted but the mixture has not reached boiling or caramelization point. Remove the simple syrup from the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Open the canister that you've been wanting to open for months and pour the cooled simple syrup into it, swirling to mix. (A note: I've made this a bunch of times now, and I find it helpful to strain the peels out BEFORE you add the simple syrup. Strain, return the alcohol to the jar, then add the simple syrup. Also, you can adjust the amount of simple syrup to your tastes. Make the whole amount, then taste as you add so that you can get the level of sweetness you're looking for. Remember, the flavors still have time to mellow, so it will be pretty sharp still at this point.) Close the canister again, and place it in the cool, dark spot for another two weeks.

It will finally be time to use those great, rubber-stopped bottles. (Mine are simple, but I love the look of them just the same. I've read that some people use lots of smaller bottles, available at places like Cost Plus or the like, and give the small bottles away as gifts.) Whatever bottles you are using, make sure they are very clean. Before you pour the liqueur into the bottles, strain it several times. First, strain with a simple sieve to remove the lemon peels. Don't stop there though; for a clearer liquid, strain once or twice through coffee filters. Carefully, and using a reliable funnel, pour the liqueur into the bottles and seal. Place the stoppered bottles into the dark spot, and let the mixture mature for at least two weeks before opening. Once opened, you may want to keep it in your freezer, so it is always very cold.

Enjoy this with family, friends, or—as my wise friend SWW calls them—framily. In short, drink this with someone you love.


Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

Did you get to hear the noise some of the tiny cars make as they back up? Literally like those toy cars that you pull back to wind up. Vvvvoooooooot! So cute :)

Wendy said...

Your wide eyed wonder at the car ignition card was really sweet and has put a firm smile on my face. :)
Love the photo of the wee red car.

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

Another magical post, Christina. Glorious photos and keen observations. I've had mixed feelings about Italy, but you have me thinking I really need to see it.

I like small cars too. A lot. I'm not a car guy in general, but the Mini Cooper had me suddenly lusting after sheet metal in a big way. My brother and I tooled around the UK in one of the original Minis, even smaller than the current version, if you can believe that. And regarding mopeds and motorcycles, for me, their constant high-pitched whine is part of the soundtrack of Paris.

Anonymous said...

You hit on 2 things I love about Italy: 1) the lack of SUV's and 2) Autogrill! Can you even believe the delicious, fresh offerings for food there? THere was even a gourmet food section at one of them. Not to mention, they serve beer at the autogrille. they trust (?) their people so much that they are saying, yes, this is a driving rest stop. If you want to enjoy a crisp beer with your prociutto and mozzerella with fresh basil sandwich, please do! love those autogrills.

also, it is a pain the arse attempting to park/drive w/in the bigger cities in ITaly. THat's b/c of the areas w/in the city limits you must have a permit to drive into them. The PROBLEM is, if you are a tourist w/ limited knowledge of language, it is very easy to get lost and enter the city limits. This happened to us while driving in to Milan. In Bologna, we did receive a fine, but we're fighting it w/ our car company (DO NOT GET A CAR IN ITALY FROM LOCAUTO). Our hotel even gave us a pass in Bologna, but somehow we must've crossed the one street we weren't supposed to. You really should check out the city again. Your hotel could have pointed you to the big municipal parking lot on the other side of town (near the university) that you could park in for like 8 euros a day. It's only a 10 minute walk into the main part.

Also, not sure if you realized, but the roads there are not filled w/ annoying cops ready to chase you down if you do something wrong. There are cameras everywhere catching speeders.

Great post again. And god bless Autogrill!

Christina said...

Bleeding Espresso: I noticed the interesting sounds of lots of vehicles in Italy. I also noticed the absence of those sounds in Venice. I always forget how, when I got to another country, everything is going to sound different--different bird sounds, car sounds, and everyday noises. I love absorbing those differences.

Wendy: Isn't is just so cute? I love it too. Glad to make you smile.

Terry B.: Thanks! I am so excited that you're a small car fan, the original Minis in particular. On the walk to my garden plot I pass a British motor restoration shop that specializes in original Minis. The tiny lot at the shop always has at least 10 old Minis in it, and I always slow down to gawk as I pass it. I'll have to shoot some pictures of the shop to send your way--I think you'd love it.

Amy: The Autogrill really is amazing. We couldn't get over the offerings. Thanks for the encouragement about Bologna--I hadn't written it off completely, so someday, I will have to give it another go. I hadn't noticed the lack of cops either, but now that I think about it, I never did see a freeway patrol. I did see lots of cops standing around at corners chatting up young women, but that is another story.

Anonymous said...

the tiny cars are adorable. i especially enjoy it when people park their wee cars facing the curb instead of parallel.

sigh...i'm not going back until september. i'm not sure i can wait that long, especially after posts like these.

also, love the staircase pix! and autogrill rules.