Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How Italy has changed my driving habits - Part 1

We have always found driving in Italy to be somewhat stressful.  I can recall late nights returning from day trips and the atmosphere in the car being somewhat strained and well, not a high point of our marriage relationship....

Getting lost is never fun and when you ask locals they always seem to say "Sempre dritto" [straight ahead] and point you down the road whether they understand what you are asking or not, or know the answer!

So, this trip the agreement to hire a car in Sicily was on the basis of some strict rules:

1.  We would use Google Maps on our iPhones or iPads to reduce the likelihood of getting lost (note the wording here.... REDUCE LIKELIHOOD)

2.  We have a dear friend in Milan whose mantra to us was "Con calma, tranquilli, senza stress!!" [calm, peaceful and with no stress].  This was going to be our mantra while driving in Sicily, where in Palermo in particular, the traffic is renowned for the inducement of red line stress levels.

Driving in Naples in Roman times!
Driving in Naples as it used to be!
I have covered our initial experience of driving in Naples in a video and this experience, whilst I was not driving in that video clip, it was part of what changed my own driving habits hopefully forever.  Our driver that day was our host and one of our suppliers.  He mentioned to us that he commuted for an hour each way to his place of work from his home in a small village in rural Italy.  He said he enjoyed it and found it relaxing, to listen to music, or just think.  He drove through the total chaos of Neapolitan traffic so relaxed WE were nervous.  But his calmness in the chaos was remarkable and I could tell he had discovered something.  My thoughts when I heard this was that so often I am stressing out about people cutting me off, or slow drivers or finding the best way to get to my destination or the traffic jam or what ever.....  He exuded a calmness that was very appealing.

So, objective number two was doubly re-inforced by the time we picked up our rental car in Palermo, Sicily.

Objective number one was tested immediately.  We confidently and assertively declined the offer of a GPS from the rental car company, putting all our faith in Apple to guide us through Sicily.  With two iPhones and two iPads, that should do it.

We entered our destination into the Apple device, a remote part of rural Sicily, and wonderfully, Google Maps found it.  All good so far.

Then we clicked on 'Directions from our Current Location' and wonderfully a blue line appeared on the map and off we go.

Ancient Portal, down town Palermo, Sicily
Traffic pouring through an ancient
portal in down town Palermo
First problem - the thick blue line of Recommended Route #1 blanked out the street names on the map.

Second problem - the blue dot that indicates your current location has some lag from real time.  This takes a bit of getting used to when you are driving down a one way, multi lane road with myriads of little side streets - one of which you need to take... Decisions need to be taken with split second timing..

So, the initial result was two loops around one way streets before we managed to get out of central Palermo.    Not too bad.... it felt as if we had got off lightly.

The next lesson was the next day when we set off to find Monreale. All was fine until the recommended route took us to a point in the back blocks where the road was closed. Blocked off.  Take another route.  Hang on a minute, we have just driven for half an hour, are in the middle of nowhere and the road is closed!!!  What to do? Turn back or take the detour that the road signs indicated?  Surely it must just go around the piece of the road that has washed away and we will be back on the road??  We took the recommended detour.  MISTAKE!!!  We ended up winding through incredibly narrow back roads and taking literally hours to get to our destination.  Objective #2 was getting sorely tested by the time we arrived!  When we mentioned this later to one of our lovely agriturismo hosts, he calmly said, "oh yes, that road's always closed, you never go that way"!!.  No-one had mentioned this common local knowledge to Google.  Obviously.

That was the first part of my Italian driving education - more to come!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Starting a Sicilian Adventure

This trip to Italy has contained some new travel experiences for us. For the first time we booked an overnight ferry from Naples to Palermo, in the North East of Sicily. For Kathy the memories of several departures from Naples by ship came flooding back and as we found the actual vessel we were to spend the night on, levels of excitement rose again! It was a HUGE ship, capable of carrying hundreds of cars, trucks and people! The entire bow section of this vessel had opened up like a huge mouth to gorge itself on the vehicles overflowing the city of Naples and take some south.

As this monster departed the wharf, no tugs were in attendance, but the massive power of the vessel's side thrusters stirred the entire port area like an egg beater. Other smaller vessels pulled on their moorings as the temporary whirlpool our ship created was like a river rapid.

We arrived in Palermo, Sicily's capital city early on a Sunday morning. The announcements over the ship's PA were barely intelligable in either Italian or English, but we got the gist that sleeping in was not an option. As we blearily emerged from our cabin we found it was raining. The next announcement said something about "for 'security reasons' a bus would be provided for passengers without their own vehicles".... Okayyy... We wondered what the nature of the security risk was - was it us pillaging goods on the wharf or was it what Sicily is famous for??

When we disembarked we found ourselves and many other passengers standing on the wharf in the rain looking up and down for a bus. The only thing there was an eager taxi driver. I asked someone where the bus was ("dov'e' l'autobus?"). His reply in Italian was "what for?". That stumped me right there. Fortunately Kathy came along and used the right Italian term which is "navetta" for the type of bus that we were going to use. It would be coming soon. As we began to contemplate the meaning of "soon", standing in the rain, we noticed some people beginning to walk off with their suitcases. What to do? Kathy began to follow them, but for some reason, I called her back. Within 5 minutes we knew what 'soon' meant and the navettas turned up. Then we knew what the reason for the little buses was - it was MILES to the city. If we had tried to walk it we would have been soaked, tired and grumpy (and probably lost).

The first priority was a coffee. This proved again another thing we have noticed about Italy. Every region has its own nomenclature and customs for Italian breakfast of coffee and a cake. Sicilians and Neapolitans looked blankly at us when we ordered our standard Roman breakfast of a 'cafe latte con doppio caffe' e una bomba' (double shot latte with a donut filled with cream custard). What turns up for both items in Palermo indicates theyhad no idea what Kathy was talking about!

A chap at work had been in Sicily a month or so earlier and had told me the most stressful thing he had done in his life was to drive in Palermo!

Therefore, as we picked up our rental car from downtown Palermo early on a Sunday morning, we thought we would have the best possible opportunity to drive OUT of a still dormant Palermo hoping to never have to do that again.

The chap in the rental car hire was very taciturn and noted we were returning the vehicle to Catania Airport on the other side of Sicily. He thought he should tell us that it was likely that the airport would be closed to commercial air traffic by then as it would be requisitioned by the military for the war on Iraq! Secondly, we noted that our insurance was invalid if we parked the vehicle in an 'unmanned' car park and many other exclusions! We knew we were in for an adventure right then.

Within 1km of the car pickup we had had one near miss and taken two wrong turns in a maze of one way streets!!

However, our mantra for Italian car hireage (which can be divorce fodder) was a quotation we learnt from an Italian friend in Milan on our last trip - "con calma, tranquilli, senza stress!!". With the assistance of Apple Corporation, we did find our way out of Palermo and to our delightful Agriturismo in the remote hills above the city.

We had a lovely warm welcome there from both man and dog!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Amo Napoli

As we sat and waited for our ferry to leave Naples, there was this guy sitting opposite us with a cap 'Amo Napoli' (I love Naples). We understood why he would wear that cap, even though he looked as if he didnt love anything very much in that moment! Naples is very misunderstood - it's had a lot of bad press over the years.

There's a lot more to write about, but as I

leave Naples I am left with two lasting impressions:
1. The warmth of the Neapolitan people that I covered in my last blog entry and

2. The history oozing out of every crack of the city.

The finger prints of past generations that are all over Naples (and other parts of Italy) fascinate me. These people have shaped our modern western world in so many ways and I feel privileged to walk in the same streets and see the same things that people did over 2000 years ago.

The old city of Naples is itself a living museum of history. You walk streets like Spaccanapoli that were in existence before the rise of the Roman Empire. People are still living in similar houses, but with the internet! Not that the internet seems to have the grip here that it does on us on the other side of the world.

I know that we only scratched the surface with what Naples has to offer and therefore, I have many reasons to return. However, the few things that I did see I experienced as outstanding.

One place that has been marinated in history for hundreds of years is the Castel Nuovo, which dominates the port area of Naples, with its five castellated towers. It exceeded my expectations when I walked in to see ancient doors on display with a cannon ball still embedded in them! This place was full of employees of the castle sitting on chairs doing absolutely nothing. We guessed they were required to be there in case someone went berserk and started damaging the huge number of priceless pieces of art on display, but actually, many of the guards were asleep in their chairs! One part of the castle has a glass floor so you can see the excavations they have made showing what the castle was like in much earlier periods. As I wandered across this floor, the depth below seemed to vary wildly, which was a bit disconcerting, but suddenly I discovered i was walking over the actual skeletons of people who had died many many years before. Even more disconcerting.

The second place that was fascinating to me to visit, was the Archaelogical Museum. If you have been to Pompeii, this museum has more artefacts from Pompeii than are actually still in Pompeii. When the Pompeii excavations were discovered in the 1800's the then king of Naples instructed that the best artefacts should be brought to Naples. It is so sad one of the largest and most amazing mozaics was badly damaged in this process. The
remaining mozaic battle scene is still pretty impressive. However, the statues in the Farnese collection are some of the most compelling. The sheer size of the pieces, some of which are carved from a single piece of marble are amazing to see. The other quite interesting thing here is the Meridiana Calendar. If you go into one of the great halls, there is a line going across the floor with Zodiac symbols every now and again. At exactly mid day, there is a pin hole of light from high up in the ceiling that shines down onto this line and indicates the exact day of the month. It still works! No batteries required.

I have always loved the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele in Milan. It is an amazing place, but I did not know until I stumbled upon it that Naples had its own Galleria too and it is also an amazing place. We were fortunate enough to see it from both a tourist perspective and also from the first floor, where one of our suppliers has a fantastic showroom of their handcrafted cameos in this stately structure. It is well worth a visit. Its interior finishing is an indication of the earlier wealth and prosperity that Naples once enjoyed.

The last place I will mention here is the Piazza del Plebiscito. It is a vast piazza, bordered on one side with the absolutely huge Royal Palace, which has been the home of Spanish, French and Italian Royalty and at the other end with a monument and huge church with a dome based on the design of the Pantheon in Rome.

So much more to see and do in Naples....

P.S. The cameo specialists on the first floor of the Galleria entertain the rich and famous in their stately premises in the Galleria (by invitation only) and supply their products to Heads of State....and Dream of Italy NZ!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Heart of Naples

A casual visitor to Naples would be struck by the following things:

- the noise, primarily of traffic, but also, everyone talking at the top of their voices, loud music and so on
- the omnipresence of graffiti - it is everywhere, including unfortunately on some of the city's ancient monuments
- young people gathering gregariously in the evenings in every piazza and common area to hang out and in many cases to 'make out'!
- a higher proportion of homeless and street people than in many western cities
- a reputation for petty crime (pick pocketing)
- a modern civilisation living amongst antiquity and history

All of this makes up a high octane, gritty experience for the visitor, which may cause many to think "I don't need this!".

Unfortunately, those people might miss out on the wonderful flip side of Naples because of this. Here are some examples we experienced:

The local people have an uncomplicated, open and welcoming nature that is missing in some of our societies.

We were taken out for a coffee by one of our suppliers and our host parked in a taxi rank, just outside the railway station. It was not long before a taxi driver arrived and leant out the window to ask him to move. Our host immediately moved his vehicle to another illegal park on a roundabout with the hazard lights flashing and left it there for over an hour. However, the taxi driver came up to him and apologised for the inconvenience caused by asking him to move!

We went to a bar and asked the owner for his recommendation for the best pizza restaurant nearby. He gladly gave us directions and we set off, but could not locate it. We went back and as soon as he saw us, he stopped an indepth conversation with another customer and greeted us warmly. When we asked for the directions again, he broke out of his conversation and began to explain. Meanwhile, another of his local patrons joined in, got up and walked to the street and explained in great detail how to obtain one of the Neapolitan pizza's Naples is famous for. He smiled warmly and wished us well. We felt like we were among old friends!

On our last day, we found a cafe that served what we were looking for for lunch. Inside was an old Neapolitan man, whose job it seemed was to be a waiter and comedian. He brought in a plate of pasta for another guest and waved it under the noses of the other patrons so they could smell how good it was! He kissed a guy adjacent to us on the head and then came over and told me how lucky I was to have Kathy. He had an irrepressible twinkle in his eye, so that everyone responded to him. We were still there when it was time for him to go home for his siesta, so he wished us all 'arrivederci' and farewelled us all individually. We were sitting by the street window, and soon there was a tapping on the window and we turned to see his mischevous face grinning and waving goodbye to us!! Only in Naples!!

Furthermore, without exception, three of the four suppliers we dealt with shared with us their views about social issues facing Naples, including the influx of illegal immigrants from Africa. They expressed these views with a compassion and heart that you would not expect if you just experienced the Naples I described above. "These people" (the illegals as they call them) "are not bad people, but they are hungry....." Without exception, we felt a connection with the Neapolitan people that we were dealing with that was more than just a business relationship. That is what doing business is all about in Naples. People sharing their passion.

Also on the flip side, we did not experience any of the petty crime and after a few days felt quite safe almost everywhere we visited. We found that as we relaxed a bit (still being reasonably careful), we really began to enjoy Naples, mainly because of the openness and warmth of the people and also, the amazing ancient nature of the city that is still expressing its vibrance in spite of tough times.

I must say, that as you go around Naples, you can see that it was a glorious and wealthy place probably just over 100 years ago and for much of the previous two millenia. Sadly, that wealth and prosperity is not broadly spread any more.

We'll be back if at all possible!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Neapolitan Life

From my childhood, I always remember I loved Neapolitan Icecream. It was locally made, but consisted of three colours, of vanilla, pink and brown and was always a lovely creamy texture. It was just called Neapolitan I think; just a brand for a locally produced icecream fromTip Top. I wonder if the person in the marketing department that suggested that name had much idea of what real Neapolitan icecream is like or what life in Naples is like, but they hit on a winner with me. I had never heard of Naples at that stage of my life, but Kathy had at a similar age. For her, the term 'Neapolitan' had vastly different associations of rich, warm memories of growing up in this culture. The next few days we began the re-discovery of what being Neapolitan in 2012 means and we took some different things from the experiences we had and mixed them together. Just like the icecream, it ended up tasting very rich and creamy.

On the first morning we had in Naples, we decided to wander up into the very ancient part of Naples, 'Spaccanapoli', which is a road that has been in place since Greek times that literally splits Naples in half and runs in a straight line from the port to the other side of old Naples.

We entered this historic street at Piazza Gesu'' Nuovo (Piazza New Jesus. or New Piazza Jesus). I am not sure of the history of this name, but it was amusing seeing an icecream shop named 'Gelateria del Gesu' ('Jesus' Iceceam Shop' and other similarly named businesses!

We were keen to explore, but Naples was a bit hung over from the previous Saturday night. Many shops and businesses were shut and the churches were really off limits due to the fact that Mass was being celebrated in many of them, so we headed down the narrow street to just experience it.

We were the frightened tourists really, being very careful to keep bags appropriately clenched from passing motor scooter theives and a money belt for our money. It was interesting, that after a day or so, we began to relax and whilst ever vigilant, we never used that money belt again in Naples and when we relaxed, we began to experience the city in a more real way and started to enjoy it at an unexpected level.

We soon discovered the narrow street that leads off Spaccanapoli that is famous for selling the Italian Christmas Nativity scenes called 'presepi'. Italians come from all over Italy to this region to get their 'presepe' and sure enough, the street was full of Italian tourists. It was a refreshing change to the normal flavour of tourists.

As we browsed the stalls that jutted out into the narrow street, suddenly a taxi appeared and was DRIVING down a street about the width of my driveway at home, but full of shop stalls that jutted into the street and also full of people. But, with the use of the horn the people pressed back into the shops and stalls to let the vehicle through. It was tight. As the first one passed me, my elbow caught the side of the car - hey, this was Naples and following the taxi were many motor scooters zooming up and down weaving amongst people as they browsed the shops.

As you wander these narrow streets, every now and again they open up into a Piazza that has an amazing piece of architecture. As we reached the top of this street, we found one of these.

Furthermore, this Piazza had a sign indicating underground excavations could be seen here, so we decided to investigate. Because of its antiquity, Naples has many underground areas to explore that date back to Roman and even Greek times. This one principly had Roman shops from 300 - 400 BC and it was amazing to see the shop counters and other evidence of how life here was lived over 2000 years ago about 3m below the real thing happening just above our heads.. It seemed to that we were walking on 'holy ground' and the only ones there. Suddenly, a group of Italian tourists burst into our reverent solitude, talking at the top of their voices, laughing and full of life right now, it brought us back to the reality of Naples. Life here is lived at full volume in all dimensions simultaneously (their flash cameras popping photos everwhere despite the 'No Photo' signs everywhere)!!

When we re-surfaced, we found ourselves in a large hall and the size and detail of the ceiling frescoes were just amazing. This was initially a friary and the frescoes were intended to represent the 7 Royal Virtues, surrounded by 4 Minor Virtues. In 1442 it was the seat of government for Naples in its self-governing past and the frescoes above featured virtues that they as politicians needed to keep in mind. Love, peace, good luck, kindness, goodness, etc These frescoes were stunning and I just had to make a video of them to do them justice. I wonder if the politicians who sat in that hall actually considered them or ever quoted them to one another in their arguments and points of order. A pity video was not around in those days!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Rome to Naples - a transition

The Villa Borghese in Rome has always been on the list of sights I wanted to see. However, you need to book in advance and it was not to be on this visit. A series of road blocks including our NZ bank declining credit card transactions, using up all the credit on our Italian phone trying to sort it out and well, 'va bene' you just have to accept some things!

So, we set off on foot across town to see the Villa Borghese Gardens, touted as Rome's version of Central Park NYC. We thoroughly enjoyed a walk through the streets of Rome, just enjoying everyday life there. Parking as always was a point of interest and the much increased use of electric vehicles here. This one is an example, parked in an area reserved for two wheeled transportation! Kathy, as always, was on the lookout for Fiat 500's, her dream car, and there were lots of those. This is a city where small cars rule.

En route, we passed through another of Rome's amazing Piazza's, Piazza Popolo, by accident. It had yet another Egyptian obelisk (seemed to be very popular in ancient Rome) and was just huge. But we couldn't stay there long due to the extreme heat, so we headed for the adjacent Villa Borghese Gardens for some shade and hopefully some respite.

To be honest, these gardens did not live up to our expectations. They were nice, but not remarkable. They needed the care of a good gardener... I was expecting more.

So, after a while, we headed to the Spanish Steps that were nearby. When we got there, seriously, you could have baked a potato on the granite. It was hard to imagine our son's visit there in January when the steps were covered in ice and very slippery.

We sought solace in a nearby cafe offering an airconditioned space and were a little refreshed after having a great buffet lunch for 9 Euro.

Then it was time to mooch on to the Trevi Fountain. What a circus!! There were absolutely wall to wall tourists and it felt quite claustrophobic! Nevertheless, you can't be just down the road from this amazing place and not visit it. And as I stood and looked at the monument this time I think I understood for the first time what this monument was all about. You see, there was this guy (the big guy in the picture - he is about 3m tall) was having a siesta in the nude, as you do (it must have been around this time of year). He was awoken by a commotion outside and grabbed a sheet and went to the door to see what it was all about.

There was someone grappling with a horse, right outside. The commotion had obviously awoken his two neighbours who also are having a peek at this guy grappling with an uncontrollable horse that had grown wings.

I had always wondered what this story was all about.

It was a relief to wander away from the tourist rabble and then we chanced on an amazing excavation of Roman occupation right next door. It was so lovely and cool and EMPTY and quite amazing. They had excavated under the buildings above to reveal fantastically well preserved evidence of Roman villas and life there. It was sad in some ways to see a substantial pile of ancient coins there. The caption said that these were most likely a stash from a slave and were virtually worthless in the economy of the time.

The next morning, we set off for the Termini, the Central Railway station in Rome to catch the train to Naples....

I had a sense of foreboding. I had loved Rome on this visit, but would Naples just be too much for me? The books say if you love Rome, you should go further south, as Italy only intensifies as you go further south. But the crime, (30% unemployment), the mafia, the dirt, the rubbish; you know, what would it REALLY be like? Whilst Kathy had lived near to Naples, for some reason, they did not visit Naples as a family very regularly. She too wondered I think, but also had a sense of excitement at coming back to her childhood roots.

It had been arranged that a taciturn chap called Guido would pick us up to take us from the station to our apartment. He led us to his car and when we arrived he tried to open the boot for our luggage. The car behind had parked so close the boot would not open. Va be'...(Italian expression meaning "oh well"). He then proceeded to move his car forward diagonally so that it partly obstructed the stream of traffic pouring past and LEFT THE DRIVER'S DOOR OPEN (!!) further obstructing the traffic. The amazing thing was that no one seemed to care. The traffic simply merged two lanes to one and kept surging past!!

As we travelled into Naples and reached the Centro Storico (the historical centre), then the real Naples started to show. Firstly, the road was like a grade 3 river rapid, paved with ancient cobble stones. It appeared that no appreciable road maintenance had been done here since Roman times. All the cars and scooters just seemed to adjust to an absolute pounding from a surface like Lake Taupo in a storm! In addition, the standard behaviour was to simply drive or walk where you want to go regardless of whether anyone else is approaching at 90 degrees or even 180 degrees. I have experienced traffic in Jakarta, which was not as crazy as this. But there is a sense of good humour. Our driver just expected to stop and give way to others all the time. People just step into the stream of traffic to cross the street and everyone stops for a moment.

The other thing that strikes you is simply the roar of raw noise. The tyres on the cobbles, the sound of the vehicles all assault the ear drums.

The city itself is also visually amazing. Graffiti is everywhere, but the sense of entering a historic place that is still a live city today is there.

When we arrived at our apartment, we had 3 levels of security to get through. Firstly a huge box section steel gate, then a locked door to the lift and then our apartment itself with a series of 5 dead bolts and top and bottom bolts as well.

Our host was an open and friendly Italian primary school teacher and she was keen to give us all possible information on what there was to see in Naples. To make sure we were still listening she would ask us questions: what was the name of the famous chocolate shop?What was the colour of the tower at the castle? We were trying to focus but our eyes were starting to spin.

Finalmente she locks us in from the outside with the four turns of the 7 dead bolt system! Ok, we relax and decide to go to the supermarket across the road to get some supplies (we knw how to get out - we were listening).. Oh, no, there she was at the checkout. We skulk through and around behind a row to wait for her to leave. NO MORE INFORMATION PLEASE!! We are in word overload.

Our return to the apartment with cheese, salame and pasta was a success. We had not been robbed, kidnapped by the mafia or run over by a motor scooter.

But the transition from Rome was considerable. This was like a different country. At this point, I was undecided if I liked it or not.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

'Stumbling Upon' in Rome

On this trip to Rome we had a vague idea that this city had so much to offer and we had only seen just some of the tourist highlights. Wow, by day 2 we SO knew that was true.

We had previously stayed in a location close to the Termini central railway station for convenience, but this time we opted for an apartment we found on 'AirBNB' which was close to the Vatican and in an area not so populated with hotels. This choice proved to be better than we could have imagined.

Day 1 we stumbled out of the apartment in search of our first Italian ritual, the morning 'cafe latte' in a local bar with a 'bomba', a doughnut filled with a lovely creamy custard. As we settled in on the street and watched the local Italians start their day, we knew we were back in our second home. Carabinieri with their red stripe down the side of their black trousers called in for a smoke and coffee; impeccably dressed Italian men and women everywhere engaging in spirited conversations.

We could see the ancient walls of the Vatican right there, so we decided to wander over - why not? As we entered the Piazza outside the St Peter's Basillica you can't help but get a feeling of awe and excitement. This place in my experience has the most impressive piece of architecture and human endeavour I know of. The design, the scale and the grandeur of it all takes more than one visit to fully appreciate.

A good humoured crowd was coursing towards the in bound security and we decided to join in. Inside the wonder of the place impacted us again, just as in the past. Thousands of tourists were accommodated with ease. The splendour of the architecture - we just had to soak it up.

Next stop was a complete contrast with some lunch at a cafe beside a pedestrian crossing. Traffic in Rome has been accurately described as being similar to rocks in an avalanche. I had re-familiarised myself with the recognised wisdom of how to cross the road, even on a pedestrian crossing - "stride purposefully across, but ensure you get eye contact with the driver and they will stop for you". I laughed as I watched a local pick up a panino and saunter through the avalanche stream across the pedestrian crossing. It simply parted around him enveloping him until he reached the other side, completely unperturbed, nonchalantly consuming his panino all the while!

As I watched I also recalled how the car horn is so much more of a multi function device in Italy. In my native culture it is used pretty much solely to express displeasure at another driver's behaviour or occasionally to say hello to someone you know. In Italy, it does have these uses, but SO much more including a polite, "I'm here, less than 1m beside or behind you" and "I'm happy" and many more emotions of life. Consquently, the horn on all vehicular transport is in constant use!

That evening, we wandered around looking for a place to eat and again 'Stumbled Upon' Dino and Tony's Hosteria. As we indicated we would like a table, the owner separated two tables that lined the street for us. We had not sat down too long when an Italian couple sat down at the table next to us.

Nek minute, the owner re-appears, leans over the table and pronounces "Rosso o bianco; frizzante o naturale?" in a loud voice, right up close to my face! Heaps of assumptions here!! Firstly that we understood Italian, secondly that we would like wine of one of two colours and thirdly that we would like some water as well! Fortunately Kathy responded in a heart beat with our choices, which satisfied him and he disappeared. He reappeared with what we could call a milk jug full of house wine and a bottle of water. "All'antipasto ci penso io" (I'll take care of the antipasto). Somewhat overwhelmed but amused we meekly assented to this. No menus anywhere. When approached, our Italian neighbours selected their wine and water options, but when asked about the antipasto, they responded with a question - "what else have you got?" This was taken with considerable offence by our host who asked why you wouldn't go with the fabulous choices he had on offer! Undeterred, they pressed him until he thumped a brief menu in front of them. They ended up giving in and having the antipasto anyway.

Our neighbour winked at Kathy as his wife perused the menu. We poured a glass of red wine (which was chilled) and he asked what the wine was like. "Possibly the worst wine we have had in Italy!" responded Kathy!! He had a good laugh and told us not to feel pressured - some chance!

Blam! Our first plate of antipasto thumps down on the table. As we begin to sample the quite unusual selection of unidentifiable deep fried items, blam! A plate of prosciutto and salame, then plate three, a pizza, landed on the table.

As we consumed the overflowing antipasto platters, we realised that ALL the patrons of this restaurant were Italian - a good sign - and we struck up a conversation (or Kathy did!) with our neighbours that was very interesting. We were just like the guys at the luggage carousel at the airport (see earlier blog entry).

By this time we had made our way through a couple of plates of pasta we hadn't ordered either and had begun to bravely say 'no' to all the other directions from the restaurant owner. Also by this time he had become our friend and, with his arm around Alan's shoulder, was offering to sell us the Pope and the entire Italian Government for only 800,000 euro if we promised to take them all away from Rome.

Our table was cleared and a bottle of Limoncello was plonked on the table with four glasses, as by this time the people at the next table were also friends and we were exchanging contact details. "The Limoncello is on me" said the owner, and "you'd better have some more of that" when our glasses were empty. We thought we'd better call it a night and so did our neighbours. Tony the host brought his invoice book over and said "i have no idea what you all had apart fom the antipasto, can you tell me?".

What a great night.