Today’s post was written by the sister of a former student of mine at Danville-Neel Elementary School in Morgan County. It’s always fun to hear the impressions and opinions of someone who stays in a place for an extended period of time. Thanks for sharing, Maggie!
“Ciao!” We feel refined when we use the salutation, but did you know the term is a very informal greeting in the Italian language – like “hey” in English? No? Don’t worry, neither did I. I had this and so much more to learn when I arrived in Italy in the late summer of 2014.
I knew life would be different when I married this Army Ranger husband of mine, but moving across the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t on my radar. Not long after we were wed, however, we discussed the possibility of requesting our next post – Vicenza, Italy (I think I was dreaming of gondolas and spaghetti at the time). When we were informed we would, indeed, be relocating to the boot-shaped country in southern Europe, things got real, very real. We would be traveling to another country where we had no family, no home, no experience with the language (other than what you’ll find on the menu at Macaroni Grill), and an 11-month-old child. I (briefly) panicked.
When we arrived in the Venetian airport in August, I contacted my family via email to let them know we arrived, took a deep breath, and followed the instructions of my man on our trek to Vicenza (our car, which we’d shipped 6 weeks earlier hadn’t arrived). I’ll summarize the first 30 days in Vicenza by saying this: we lived in a hotel (did I mention we had an 11-month-old?). We went to the park… a lot.
In October, things were coming together – our car arrived, we found a suitable home with a yard only 20 minutes from base, and my husband was settling into the uniqueness of an international post assignment. That’s when the fun began! I missed my family and often found military life frustrating, but I also found the challenge of navigating this place with my young family very exciting.
I’ve only been in Italy about a year now, but here are some of the big takeaways:
- Living in Europe makes traveling to other parts of Europe much less expensive and time consuming. So far, we’ve traveled to Venice (45 minutes), Bassano del Grappa (1 hour), Verona (1 hour), Florence (3 hours), Rome (5 hours), and Paris (short flight). Most of the time we take the train because it is relatively inexpensive and takes the burden off of us (parking is not easy to come by, and Italians have a pretty poor reputation in regards to driving skills).
- Not all “Italian” food is created equal. The fettuccini alfredo, breadsticks, and cheese-stuffed crust pizza you dearly love… you won’t find it here. In northern Italy (that’s where we are), food is pretty bland – no spices, no marinara dipping sauce, and no brick oven pizza. Southern Italy kicks it up a notch with a little more olive oil, oregano, and “oven roasted” fare. Hear this: the food is not bad by any means, but it’s no Carrabba’s. My sister has visited us here in Italy twice; two days into her first trip, she had determined the food was the biggest disappointment and decided we should eat the remainder of our meals together at home (she spent the money she appropriated for food on cappuccinos instead – those things do not disappoint).
- Grocery shopping is much easier at the commissary. Don’t judge me, I still go to the Italian grocery store on occasion, but I do the bulk of my shopping on post. Let me put it this way: Italians eat a lot of deli meat and my family does not. The commissary is much like a miniature Kroger while the PX is more like a dwarfed combination of Wal-Mart, the mall, and Lowes. As you can imagine, food prices vary some, and I haven’t found a good sweet potato yet, but I am so thankful for the commissary. Here is an Italian market in my town.
4. Gas is expensive… like more than $4/gal. I won’t bore you with the details, but we get a small discount via military-issued coupons. My husband recently purchased a motorcycle for commuting. This is common practice among men in the military for saving on gas.
5. Agriculture is not isolated to the US. I grew up around a lot of farmland in Danville, Alabama, and I assumed I’d seen the last of it for a while when I boarded the plane in Huntsville last year. I was wrong. Italy is covered… covered… in vineyards (it makes for a nice view). Not far from our home, there is a dairy operation and several acres of row crops. It is a reminder of home (and that’s better than a gondola any day of the week). My sister loves to take a morning run or evening walk down the rural gravel roads when she visits – it must remind her of home too.
6. The back alley is almost always more exciting than the main thoroughfares. If the crowd goes right, go left. You’ll find that Italians play to tourists (like posting pictures of food on the menu or selling fake souvenirs), and you don’t want that. For an authentic experience, get off the beaten path.
I’ve learned more in the past 12 months than I ever anticipated. Italy, much like the US, has beautiful tourist spots and great shopping, but it also has rural communities with normal people leading normal lives. That’s where you’ll find us Cunninghams- tucked away in Vicenza, Italy. Between the exciting adventures, we’re learning to love each other through the (often challenging) norm. I’ll be delighted to return to the conveniences of America and the comfort of extended family when the time comes, but today we drink cappuccino!
P.S. Cappuccino is served in small cups with foam on top. Italian baristas will not prepare it “to-go.” Therefore, Starbucks does not actually serve cappuccino.
P.S.S. If you have the opportunity to visit Venice, take the water taxi instead of a gondola. You’ll still be on the Grand Canal, and your wallet will thank you.