Culture

My Life in Italy, Part 13: “Two Guys and a TuTu”


As with every post in this series, if you are jumping in here, it is like jumping into the middle of a movie. Please start with Part 1, or this will make absolutely no sense.

It’s been a while since I posted an article in this series!  Sorry about that! But to get you in the mood of 1984 and where my head was, play this as your background music as you read on:

OK, hopefully, you are listening to some Flock of Seagulls…

Anyway, I’m settled in.  I have a routine.  Dudes & Dudettes, I live in ITALY!  I’m learning the language, spending an amazing amount of time going to interesting new places with Paola, and just taking it all in.   Everything is perfect, except I still believe this cold weather should be illegal, right?

My typical day looks like this:

  1. Wake up, walk to the kitchen, and make myself an espresso.  Then another, and one more just in case.  The last one would be made with warm milk, a caffe latte because I wanted to sip it slowly.
  2. Walk out to my balcony, even in the frigid cold, I would just sit there and sip my coffee while gazing at a 1,000-year-old castle. I mean, seriously!  A thousand freaking years, right?
  3. Maybe watch some TV.  I had brought over a VCR and a monitor, along with 50(ish) tapes with movies and TV in English.  Remember, no Internet back then, no satellite TV.
  4. Shower up, go downstairs and visit Alberto in his art studio to see what he was up to.  We would chat with the help of my little Italian-English dictionary.  His stories of the war were amazing beyond words!
  5. Jump into my little car, and give it 10 minutes to heat up, then navigate the icy roads to go into the piazza.
  6. A quick stop at the bar for another espresso.  This was always with some of my new friends.  Paola would usually join.
  7. Go into the Tobacco shop, and sit there and talk with Leo.  After a short period, I was free labor for him, but again, no better way to learn the language, and he was just so fascinating.
  8. 12:30 PM, it was absolutely time to go upstairs to Paola’s house.  I had become a fixture there and even had my own seat at the table.  I found it quite interesting, that her parents didn’t officially know we were together.  Looking back, of course, they knew!
  9. Eat some ridiculously large meal Paola’s mom prepared.  Her dad will have just arrived home after a hard day at work (a math teacher in the local school – Worked 8:00 AM to 12:30 PM).  Paola’s brother would pop in, and mumble and her aunt would start yelling at me for something.  Usually, she was blaming me for the Americans defeating her dear Mussolini or something.
  10. As soon as lunch was over, Paola’s brother would silently vanish like a magic trick, dad would go take his nap, and the aunt did the same.  Paola, her mom, her sister, and I would have another espresso made in the Moka pot on the stove.
  11. I would then go home, chill for a bit and maybe watch some TV in Italian and try to read the lips of Bonanza characters while speaking Italian, and then I would get bored, hop in my car and drive for hours, trying to master my own personal Formula 1 race track in Soriano.
  12. At some point in the afternoon, while the rest of the town was in “Siesta” mode, I would hop in my car and race!  I had created two “tracks” and I had a stopwatch.  Every day, I would try to beat my best time!
  13. In the late afternoon, I would head back to the tobacco shop while Paola would teach English to Italian students, and eventually, it would be dinner time.
  14. If I was having dinner at their house, it was generally a lighter meal, but as soon as it was over, dad would turn the TV on at a volume of about 1,000, until he went to bed.  That was the sign that Paola’s mom brought out the treats and amazing homemade liqueurs to share with me, Paola, and her sister.
  15. Bond.  James Bond.  Each night when I would get home, I would go to bed and put one of my VHS tapes in my VCR and watch a movie to in Engish fall asleep to.  I had 50 or 60 tapes to pick from, so there was a lot of repetition.  But I quickly learned that I fall asleep very easily to a Bond movie.
  16. Rinse and repeat.

It was GLORIOUS!!!!!

elderly men in piazza

Grumpy Old Men Totally Dig Me

So that was my typical day.  19 years old, living 8,000 miles from home, and this is what my day looks like.  In my last post I introduced you to Leo and Alberto.  I absolutely loved them, and they loved me!  But there was also the old man named Nando, and another named Memmo that had very much taken a liking to me.  Now please keep in mind, I still can hardly communicate in Italian!  Let me tell you about them.

Leo

I introduced him in the last article of this series, and he owned the tobacco shop. Everyone was extremely puzzled that he adored me, because he was known as that mean old tobacco shop guy. He was known to always be rude, and even kick people out of his store if he was in a mood.  But I adored him, and he was always so incredibly nice to me!

Alberto

My landlord, also introduced in the last article.  He was quite simply the most amazing, gentle, and sweet person I ever met!  I could not think of a single bad word to say about him, and he made it clear to everyone in town that I was like a son to him.  But other people would think “Alberto???”  Really???  He was also known to be grumpy and radical… A couple brain cells short of bat shit crazy.  But when we would sit and talk through my English-Italian dictionary, I found him to be deep, insightful and had very well thought out opinions.  So much so, that it caused me to question other people that thought he was crazy!

Memmo

Or “Zio Memmo,” was Paola’s uncle (I believe more like 3 times removed), and he was apparently a very peculiar man, and a die-hard communist.  But hardly a day that he didn’t invite me to have a gelato with him!  He took me out to lunch every so often, and even invited Paola and I to spend time with them at their beach house.  He even wrote a book about the history of Soriano, and wrote about me in the forward!  But to others, he was kind of one of those “stay away from him” people.

Nando

I would swear this man was 120 years old.  He wore old, wrinkled clothes, a Coppola hat, and never wore socks.  He would only show up at the bar in the morning for coffee, but for some reason, every time I saw him, he would offer to buy me a coffee, and sit and talk to me.  I’m not gonna lie, he was really mumbling, and I understood nothing, but I had become an expert at nodding and smiling at the right times.  People would see this and be in utter shock!  He was a hermit that never spoke to anyone at all.  Known to be some terrible man for some reason.  I don’t know, he seemed extremely pleasant to me!

This list really goes on, to the point that most wondered why I attracted all of these strange old men.  What can I say, I’m just that awesome!  But seriously, I would bet that at some time in their lives they had been burned badly by people, and I was fresh and new.  I had no preconceived notions.

The Pink Panther

The Pink Panther

While I am on the topic of weird people, I need to also bring up Franco, also known as “Pantera Rosa” (The Pink Panther). We did not become friends.  Now, I had just moved here from L.A., at the time the global epicenter of drive-by shootings, at the height of the gang wars between the Bloods and the Crips, right?  Here I am in this tiny Italian town, and they also have their criminal element.  Franco.

You don’t talk to him. He does not talk to you.  But every night, you see him lurking around the town piazza, very drunk (or on drugs, maybe?) just kind of stalking. I mean seriously, the dude was a full-blown creeper.

But here is the thing.  The big worry most people had was that late at night, if your car is parked in the wrong place… he might break in and steal your stereo.  Yeah, that was the big fear. I could not help but laugh that off, as I came from a place where if I got off the wrong freeway exit, someone might kill me for $5.

But credit to the people of Soriano, as they did have foresight.  He did eventually beat his mother to within inches of her life later on and was committed to an asylum.  So there it that.

The Weekend Outings

Michael and Paola 1984

I would have to say that if any one thing really defined the early stage of my relationship with Paola, it was our weekend outings.

Yeah, I know.  We look like an Album cover for Flock of Seagulls or Simple Minds, but hey!  It was 1984, and that is why I asked you to listen to “I ran” as you read this, ok?

Every weekend Paola and I would go somewhere that was within driving distance to get us home that evening.  We went to so many places, I simply cannot keep count.  But the vast majority of them were completely off the beaten path, and virtually unknown to anyone but locals.

The cool thing is this:  Many of the places we discovered back then made up the itineraries we eventually created when we started Culture Discovery Vacations!  Some, on the other hand, have since become so full of tourists, that we don’t go there anymore.  This was back when Orvieto was unknown, and The Dying City had not yet been “discovered” by Rick Steves.  But it also includes places we go and things we do on our vacations with our guests now, such as The Monster Park, Villa Lante, Norcia, Vulci, and much more!

These are, to this day, some of our fondest memories.

Escape to Rome

rome traffic

When you are born and raised in 1970’s Los Angeles, time is measured by how many days it has been since the last Stage 3 Smog Alert.  You may not realize it, but smog kinda becomes a necessary element to your survival, and Soriano was severely lacking in the smog department.  But aside from the lack of pollution, Soriano is small!  And the winters are dead!  So once a week, I would drive into Rome to get myself a dose of CITY.

Now my days in Rome were not what people might expect.  First of all, I would try to get my car behind a bus so I could breathe in some fumes.  I am serious!  Then, I would find some very crowded places… to see… you know, crowds.  Then I would find a very touristy place where I was likely to find Americans, and strike up a conversation with them.

Often, I would even walk around as their unofficial guide.  Why?  Because my head was hurting from speaking Italian!  At the time, I was just learning, and it was Italian all day, every day.  I needed to speak to someone that natively spoke English to give my brain a rest!  I mean, as much as I loved some Sean Connery during my daiy Bond movies, he didn’t make for good conversation. Eventually, this need was gone as I became fluent, but it was rough going there for a while!

But one day specifically sticks out in my memory.  I had just been to the city, got some fumes, picked up a copy of Time magazine in English, met some Americans, and enjoyed the beautiful and unseasonably warm day in Rome.

Driving home, I experienced weather.  By weather, I mean all of it.  I was driving he mountain road back to Soriano, and it was beautiful and sunny.  Not a cloud to be seen.  Then I would turn a corner, and find myself literally in pouring rain.  Another corner, and I was back in the sun.  Then another corner, and it was snowing, and another brought hail…  all the way home, I quite literally experienced all of the weather options!  I still do not understand how that happens, but when I got back I was so excited to tell everyone.  They were not as moved as I was :-(.

Two Guys and a Tutu

This was basically life in Soriano that winter.  Paola and I were truly falling in love, and I was enjoying this incredibly simple life.  I was not enjoying the cold, though!  When I think back to that winter, there are two highlights:

  1. The first time it snowed – It was the first time I ever saw snow falling, and I was in the middle of the street trying to catch snowflakes like a 5-year-old!  Yes, they did think I was insane!
  2. Carnivale (Mardis Gras in Italy). Read on…

You see, in the middle of winter in small-town Italy, Carnivale is not just a big celebration.  It is, more accurately, something to do! 

Michael and Paola Carnivale 1984
Weren’t we adorable? And yes, proof of me wearing a suit!

There is a tradition in Soriano for Carnivale.  That night, everyone dresses up and goes dancing at one of several restaurants, and your goal is to stay up all night.  Easy, right?  But there is a rub.  Should you at any time fall asleep, your friends have a duty to catch you.  Their job is to find you and open an umbrella over your head while screaming “Presso!” (Gotcha!). Yes, the umbrella is a requirement for some reason.  Then they drag you out of bed, and take you to the nearest bar, where your sworn duty is to buy everyone an espresso.

You were not allowed to opt out of this tradition.  It was baked into being in Soriano.  So even if you chose not to go dancing, stayed home and went to bed, you always ran the risk that you would wake up in the middle of the night to screaming friends with umbrellas in your house.

I was absolutely determined not to get caught, because as far as I was concerned, I knew that Paola’s group of friends (who were now my friends) were very willing to initiate me! Little did they know that staying up all night at clubs was already my thing! Ha!

On another night of Carnivale, everyone dresses up in a costume. If only I could find a photo of this!!!!   Yep, another party to forget that it is freaking cold out there!  We decided that me and our friend Fabio would dress up as ballerinas.  There is absolutely no question that we had the most ridiculous costumes in town that night (And dressing as a ballerina in freezing weather is something you don’t forget), and it was just pure laughter.  The one and only time I have ever worn a TuTu (or something that resembles it)

All these years later, we still remember and laugh about that night.  Fabio eventually became a two-term mayor of Soriano, and we still laugh about it with the same group nearly 40 years later!

The Takeaway

This is not just the first winter I spent in Italy, It was my first winter, period.  But through all of this, I really settled in and came to appreciate small-town life in Italy.  The simple things really mattered, and the people matter.  As a guy that came from a life of excess and very shallow people, this was all so new to me, and I loved it!  It may seem simple and mundane, but these are some of the best memories of my life.

Hopefully, it won’t take years for me to write the next part of the series, but I will go on to talk about my first Spring and Summer in Italy, The point at which I was finally able to speak Italian and the day I proposed to my love:  “Part 14: He Speaks! & Mirror in the Bathroom”

Until then, please leave your comments below. I love reading them!

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  • I so enjoyed your stories! I could picture it all! The grumpy old men, racing the car, and the youthful fun, and the tutus! Thank you for sharing. You and your wife are very cute! Perhaps I will meet you when my daughter and I come on tour in September.

    Diane


  • Great read…but where is the picture of you and Fabio in your TuTu’s?


  • I wondered if you were going to continue the story! Glad you did!


  • Love this, to be young and adventuresome is fantastic


  • Hello Michael! It’s been too long to have not shared greetings. I continue to persuade customers/friends to read your blog because I feel it gives the sentiment of what CDV is and which I can never find the right words to describe. Thank you for putting my mind in that time and place you hold dear, can’t wait for the next chapter!