The greatest joy of travel are those moments when you go, ‘Huh? I didn’t expect that’. On a recent stroll through Italy I was constantly surprised and my expectations and assumptions regularly challenged.
Perhaps this is more of a reflection of my own ignorance and biases, and this is what I found…
1. Squat Toilets: I definitely wasn’t expecting squat toilets in Italy! I have had my fair share of experience with squat toilets throughout Asia, but I have never run across these in Europe.
These toilets were very common in the northern part of Italy and even the smartest looking café had these surprising facilities for customers. Any port in a storm, although very hard on tired leg muscles after walking 20km or so.
2. The Use of Bicycles: I was thrilled to see so many people using bicycles as their normal mode of transport. We do this very badly in Australia with few dedicated bike paths and substantially more bike unaware drivers.
In Italy people of every age, social class and profession were out on their bikes. Old people pedaling along to collect their newspaper or daily bread. Suited men and women heading to or from work, and parents with their children cycling to school. It was wonderful to see.
3. Tattoos: For some reason I assumed that the uber-fashionable and stylish Italians would be above the tattoo trend, but No. Even the most beautiful and glamorous Italian would have tattoos splashed up their arms and across their backs. Grandmothers had tattoos of their grandchildren on their wrists and many men were covered head to toe.
My apologies, but I just don’t understand the desire to permanently paint images on your body that one day you may despise and will definitely be subject to age and gravity, and end up a faded, saggy mess.
4. Dogs: Italian people love their dogs. In the cities I saw dogs in handbags, dogs in baby strollers and dogs on leads being as social as their owners in the cafés and piazzas. The ultimate fashion accessory perhaps?
Unfortunately I also experienced more than my fair share of sad, angry and frustrated dogs used as security for their owners’ country properties. So many times I walked past farm yards and country estates only to have large and small dogs stretch through the fences and try to eat me for breakfast. It was incredibly sad to see these dogs unloved and neglected.
5. Green & Lush: For some weird reason I had this picture in my mind that Italy had a climate similar to Australia i.e. hot and dry with great swathes of parched countryside. That was obviously my ignorance as Italy is lush and green, even at the end of Summer, and appears to have endless lakes, teeming rivers and babbling brooks.
After living in drought for so long in Australia, it was pure pleasure to walk through knee-high green grass accompanied by the sound of running water.
6. Empty Churches: It is easy to suffer from ABC (Another Bloody Church) in Italy, but so many churches are worth a look, even if it is just to marvel at the architecture. However, I was constantly surprised at how empty the churches were, with no worshippers at all or just a handful of elderly women.
Perhaps the Catholic Church in Italy is impacted like many other formal or traditional religions all over the World with aging and declining parishioner numbers. Italy may also suffer from the problem of having really small congregation numbers spread over a large number of churches crammed into every town. I truly thought that such a strong Catholic country would be immune from such trends.
7. Smoking: I could not believe the amount of people who smoked in Italy, even in restaurants. I realise this is an individual choice however I can’t help but think about the health and productivity costs that must affect this country.
8. Men in cafes: A café was not a café without a few tables of men reading the newspaper, playing cards or arguing. It didn’t matter what time of day I passed any café, they were a permanent fixture. Obviously all that socialising is good for them, but didn’t they have jobs? And where were all the women? Don’t they enjoy coffee and a chat too?
This post is not meant to be judgmental (although the smoking nearly did my head in), but more of a commentary on a few things that are so different (except the tattoos) from my life in Australia.
Travel opens the eyes, the mind and the heart. You just can’t buy that sort of powerful experience by staying at home in your own patch.
What was your biggest surprise whilst traveling?
#unexpectedItaly, #changingperceptions, #openminds,