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Italians friendly, helpful to UP tourists

A smaller car fits more easily into tight parking spaces and streets, as Glady Van Harpen points out in Rome.

Editor’s note: This article was written by Iron Mountain residents Glady Van Harpen and John Nienstaedt, who have lived here since 1986. They visited Italy in October. In a story published Nov. 25, they told of their experiences in Sassoferrato, which is Iron Mountain’s sister city. This article focuses on cultural observations throughout Italy.

Many of us travel to other countries. Certainly, many Americans travel to Canada or Mexico, and many travel overseas. Let’s also not forget our military people, who serve in many foreign lands.

In addition, because of the internet, and cable TV, we now are constantly exposed to news, sporting events, reality TV shows, contests of every type and life in general in countries all over the globe.

Still, it seems that until we are actually physically standing on a street or in a store or at a restaurant in a foreign country, where we can experience the really detailed nuances of life, we miss some fascinating similarities and differences between life in the good ol’ USA and elsewhere.

At the outset, we want to emphasize that our point here is only to describe what we saw. We are in no way saying or implying that something we saw is better or more correct. We want to assure you that, as always, we feel so happy to return to the USA, our home.

John Nienstaedt rests at Assisi, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the world. The Rocca Maggiore, at right, is a large castle in Assisi, perched on the highest point.

Swimsuits

We enjoyed swimming twice in the Mediterranean Sea and also in Lake Como. It was early October. The water temperature was similar to what we experience in our local lakes. Many Italians were still swimming.

We were so relieved to see that virtually all Italians wear swimsuits at the beach. Granted, the swimsuits we saw were pretty small, with many men wearing Speedos and many women wearing string bikinis. But, the effort was made.

In the past we have a few times been at beaches in other countries where swimming gear seems to be optional. This feels a bit awkward to us. First, it’s hard to keep your eyes to yourself. Second, you kind of feel like you’re the ones being stared at — for wearing swimsuits!

Cover at religious sites

Speaking of clothing, and body coverings, if you travel to Italy, remember to dress properly when touring religious sites.

We noticed, at the Vatican, that many people, men and women, were given wraps — for covering their shoulders. Those with muscle shirts or tank tops were required to cover themselves, and when the disposable wraps ran out, people were turned away.

Also, we were somewhat sad to see a couple, who had stood in line for a good hour, turned away at the Pantheon for having exposed shoulders.

Driving and auto transit

We drove about a thousand miles during our two-week vacation in Italy.

It’s darn near impossible to drive perfectly in another country because you have to focus so hard on making correct turns, and finding your way. Everything looks a little bit different. We do our best, and shoot to be B+ drivers at all times.

Yes, we got one stern lecture and one gesture, but we survived, didn’t hurt anyone and most importantly had fun.

We give Italians high marks for their driving. We found that almost all were polite and most importantly very tolerant. Also, if you stop and ask for directions, you will be helped.

One tip: If you rent a car, get a small one. Many streets in Italy are incredibly tightly fit between buildings. A smaller car is therefore far less stressful to drive.

Guns

Wow, I’ll bet you’re thinking — strange topic. But yes, on one of our days in Rome, we walked by a gun, or should we say weapons, shop while looking for a breakfast cafe. With a glimmer in his eye, John smiled and said excitedly, “We’re goin’ in!”

Since we both own guns, and both hunt, it was natural for us to want to see an Italian gun store. Looking in the windows we saw everything — knives, machetes, clothing, pistols, rifles, automatic weapons, basically everything.

But the first challenge was — how to get in? We could see three customers and the owner through the large glass windows of the shop, but when we tried the door, it was locked. We tried several times and then noticed the owner walk to his right behind the counter. The door made a loud click. Trying again, we still couldn’t figure it out.

So, we gave up and went to the cafe. But after a cappuccino to sharpen his wits, John said, “I’m trying again.” This time, when the door clicked, we pushed in, rather than pulling out. Voila! The door opened. And, the minute we were in, it clicked again. We were now locked into the gun store.

The next hour was fascinating. We watched attentively as a couple purchased a box of ammo but first produced several pieces of paper from a manila folder. The store owner carefully studied the papers and then scanned them before ultimately making the sale.

When we were alone with the owner, we first asked, “Why the locking door? Are you afraid of being robbed?” He seemed puzzled by our question but finally understood and just said, “It’s the law. All gun shops have this.”

Next, out of curiosity, John pointed to a box of 20-gauge shotgun shells and asked if we could buy them. The owner smiled and said absolutely not.

We then fired question after question at him. Many answers really surprised us. In all cases he patiently explained Italian gun laws: There is no concealed carry in Italy. There is no open carry in Italy. There are three levels of gun permits and all are obtained through a very careful process.

In no case did it seem that these laws bothered him. From the look of his shop, he seemed to be doing a very good business.

Finally, he concluded our visit by telling us a story. His brother traveled to the state of Oregon in the U.S. While there, he went to the department of motor vehicles and got some kind of temporary driver’s license. Then using this license, he went to a gun store and bought two pistols. He concluded the story with laughter and wonder in his voice. He said that to them, as Italians, it seemed incredulous that this could be done.

Tickets

As you see the sites in Italy, your pockets will fill with tickets. Train tickets, bus tickets, museum tickets. But we’re betting you might not have heard of BATHROOM tickets.

That’s right, if you need to go to the bathroom at many public facilities in Italy, like train stations, you’re going to first need to buy a one Euro (about a dollar) bathroom ticket from the bathroom attendant.

Wow! This one can be tough. Have you ever been rummaging around in all of your wallets and luggage looking for money as you desperately need to go to the bathroom? We found it best to keep an extra Euro or two at hand at all times.

Trains

Train travel in Italy is really the way to go. Although we drove rental cars, as mentioned before, it’s trains that really get you around.

There are really three types of trains: metra, within a given city; local trains, which stop at many, many towns; and regional trains, which go farther and stop less.

We did have one experience where we road a train about 30 miles the wrong way. We realized our mistake as we noticed the more and more rural scenery. Sheepishly we got out at the next stop, crossed to the other track and caught a train back, laughing most of the way.

Once you’re on board, it is so relaxing to sit back and enjoy the view and ride.

Friendship and language

To conclude, we would be remiss to not mention that we found the Italian people to be friendly and helpful. On many occasions they stepped forward to help us find our way, to help us buy tickets, to help us read menus and to give us great ideas of what to see next.

Language is not a problem. Most Italians speak some English and young people, in particular, seem to want to practice using it.

We hope to someday return to Italy, and we encourage others to travel to this beautiful and friendly country.

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