Highlights of Italy, Switzerland

Remember the old tourism slogan: “Texas: It’s like a whole other country”? Well, sketchy syntax aside, a recent visit to Europe revealed a number of major differences between the United States and countries such as Switzerland and Italy. Some are obvious, but others are a bit more subtle.

Food, both how it is served and what is on the plate, can be a bit of a culture shock. The Italian first course is often pasta, typically cooked al dente, translated as “to the tooth.” The noodles are purposely a bit undercooked so as not to be mushy. The sauce is almost always red. Alfredo, our group was told, is strictly an American taste. A crunchy bread is generally included in this first round.

The second course can be turkey, chicken or ham, and it often comes with a small salad. Visitors will not find ranch dressing or Dorothy Lynch and can expect a sprinkling of olive oil and perhaps a bit of vinegar on the greens. Dessert might be some tiramisu, a cake made with chocolate, heavy cream and coffee flavored liqueur. Some cannoli might be a late-evening treat.

Dinner was often served later than we were used to, and we could expect it to take at least an hour to complete. The two main non-alcoholic drinks available were Coke and Fanta, generally orange. The glass would not include ice unless specifically requested. Water was often bottled and served chilled and ice free.

Our guide for the 12-day trip was born and educated in Italy, so she exposed us to some local favorites. For one meal, we were treated to some small buns that contained bits of seaweed. She led us to street vendors who doled out unique specialties.

In Florence, Italy, we experimented with a sandwich containing a meat called lampredotto, which is cow stomach marinated in juices and topped with a green sauce. It was drippy and delicious. The man serving us was thrilled we Americans were willing to give tripe a chance.

We also sampled plenty of gelato, famous Italian ice cream, that has the consistency of frozen yogurt. I preferred the fruit versions, though I had a rum-raisin version that was outstanding.

I’ve mentioned this after past trips, but public restrooms take some getting used to in Europe. First of all, most are inhabited by attendants; often the men’s facility is cleaned by a female. And, no, the WC is not closed while this is happening. The toilets are usually located in small closet-like rooms with locks, but the urinals are out in the open. It can be a bit disconcerting to have a woman mopping about while you do your business. Often, the sinks are shared by both sexes.

The Facilities are also apparently BYOR: bring your own ring. Most public toilets do not have plastic seats. Some that do are oddly rectangular in shape, prompting my wife to ponder, “Have you ever seen anyone with a square butt?”

We expect to pay to pee when visiting Europe, and Italy is no exception. Prices range from .50 euros to 1.50. Exact change is usually a requirement. At one train station in Switzerland, the charges were discriminatory, depending upon the purpose. Using the urinals was less costly than having a seat. Though having to pay can be annoying, we all agreed that the facilities are generally much cleaner than their American counterparts.

Trying to find an understandable weather forecast was a bit of a chore. Even in Switzerland, we struggled to dress appropriately for the day. Being a runner of 10K races, I find converting kilometers to miles fairly easy, but I have yet to find a practical formula for changing Celsius temperatures to Fahrenheit. Who can multiply by 1.8 and add 32 on the fly? Not I.

Another difficulty is evident when trying to figure out from foreign radar exactly where the rain is falling in relation to our location on a map with which we are unfamiliar. At home, I can quickly pick out the shape of Marion County. I can identify the basic boot shape of Italy, but Switzer­land is another story. Throw in the fact that both countries have mountainous regions, and obtaining an accurate weather picture is nearly impossible.

Traffic in Europe, especially in cities such as Florence and Rome, is like Wichita’s rush hour on steroids. Parking is haphazard at best, with small cars nosed into even the slightest openings, regardless of the direction of the marked spaces. Autos can be found on sidewalks and protruding from alleys. Motorcycles buzz in and out with no regard for safety of the riders or pedestrians.

In among all this chaos, I never witnessed even one traffic stop by a police officer. Neither did I spy even one ticket on the windshield of an obviously illegally parked car or truck.

That is not to say police and soldiers were absent. On the contrary, they were quite conspicuous, and most were heavily armed with automatic weapons. This was both reassuring, given the increasing prevalence of terrorism, and at the same time intimidating. I could not see myself approaching to ask for directions, though I saw officers at times sharing smiles with the tourists.

Popular European destinations can sometimes be a bit disappointing in summer if the visitor is looking for an authentic cultural experience. Americans are everywhere, and it is not hard to find locals who speak English. They need to cater, after all, to tourism, and many visitors come from the United States and the United Kingdom.

If you truly want to experience the real Italy, for example, your best bet might be October or November, the slowest months for tourism. But, if you do, make sure you are ready for the differences you will find in the cultures. And take plenty of change for the restrooms.

Bob Woelk teaches English and journalism at Hillsboro Middle/High School. He can be reached at woelk@embarqmail.com.

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