Santa Maria di Negrar

The narrow winding road from Santa Maria di Negrar to Verona was flanked by lush green vineyards and well-tended gardens overflowing with vegetables. The river Adige with its beautiful Roman bridge, Ponte Pietra, built in 100 BC, dominated the Verona landscape. Higher on the banks was Castel San Pietro, built on ruins that dated back to 1389. The city walls, erected between the bridges Ponte di Pietra and Ponte Postumio alongside the river Adige as protection against 12 ft. floods, could be seen in a panoramic view from the castle’s terrace.

The ruins of a Roman amphitheater built in the 1st century BC are still extant today. It was a difficult hike to the top of the hill. Sitting on the peaceful stone steps, surrounded by balsam trees and so much history of the western world, I was daydreaming about my Roman ancestors and their daily lives, so close to a river that frequently overflowed its banks. The cobblestone road crossing the Adige, archeological evidence of the magnificent quality of thousands of miles of roads that crisscrossed the Roman Empire, held deep grooves worn into stone by chariot wheels passing through “Verona Romana.”

The province of Veneto is a spectacular canvass of green terraced orchards, balsam trees, vineyards, and olive groves, interspersed with dangerous and dimly lit roads. I closed my eyes, white-knuckled, every time Dave took sharp curves too close to the center, unable to see oncoming traffic.

The beat up Nissan we purchased for a song chugged along, picking up speed, never failing us, cranking up every time. When the GMC Jimmy was totaled, the Nissan seemed like a Godsend. Exiting our favorite pizzeria, La Tonda, one night, Dave was hit on top of the blind hill by a speeding car. The sturdy and heavy SUV saved his life.

Italians love to speed, take their side in the middle of the road, park where they please, especially on the sidewalk, drive as if their lives do not matter, and act like children when they feel cut off in traffic. Getting on the “autostrada” past the toll roads is like a gladiatorial game of kill or be killed. I have never witnessed anyone being ticketed for speeding but saw plenty of cars smashed beyond recognition on the sky is the speed limit “autostrada.”

I have seen Italian men and women stop in the middle of a busy intersection, get out of their cars with fists pumping in each other’s faces, yelling obscenities and hurling personal insults to total strangers, blocking traffic in both directions in order to get verbal revenge. Pedestrians stop to watch such comical and entertaining display of road rage while drivers honk impatiently in a cacophony of noise. Many get out of their cars to witness the spectacle, further exacerbating the traffic jam.

Riding a Pullman bus to the airport one foggy morning, the driver got out to confront a drunken “motorini” owner who hit the bus. The image running through my mind was the Italian Don Quixote fighting the giant windmills. Instead of waiting for the police that never came, the two drivers started fighting. The bus was intact, we eventually left on our way, but the little scooter was left behind with a twisted wheel. The “motorini” bully was not hurt; we were going way too slow.
There are no traffic rules for Italians, just suggestions. Following the law would be too simple. Why wear seat belts when you can wear a t-shirt with a black line across the chest, mimicking a seat belt, in an attempt to fool “polizia stradale?”

Our Spartan but expensive apartment in Santa Maria di Negrar was overlooking a rolling vineyard with an irrigation ditch that cascaded into a serene waterfall below our balcony. Few had a backyard – the land was too precious to waste on frivolous pleasure – it was used to raise food instead. The owners tended to the grapevines meticulously like a mother caring for her baby. We were delighted to leave our large windows open all the time, shutters and all, overlooking the green hills in the distance, and did not have to worry about flies or mosquitoes – the vineyard was well sprayed for parasites and disease. I wanted to meet the owners but I was afraid to enter their property – below the imposing archway was a huge “no trespassing” sign. A German shepherd and a hunting rifle accompanied the owner on his daily inspections of the grounds. I watched him from afar. We were the only Americans in the small village on the outskirts of Verona. Americans were not very welcome and we stood out like a sore thumb – we are both tall. German tourists, who loved the Lake Garda area, would often ask us for directions, thinking that we were German. We must have looked like giants to the petite Italians.

I loved the cool marble tiled floor and the large skylight on the second floor. I took many dangerous tumbles from the second floor on the moist and slippery marble. We could watch the stars in the absence of streetlights and outdoor ambient light. When the sun went down, we were plunged into an inky blackness, perfect for stargazing.

It was strange that we had to purchase light fixtures, sinks, and other amenities that American apartments offer. Italians rent apartments or homes for most of their lives and are expected to provide chandeliers, kitchen cabinets, sinks, and air conditioning. When they move, they take all these amenities with them, leaving the apartment stripped bare with electrical wires exposed everywhere. Because we were so far north, nights were cool. It was really hot during the day without air conditioning but nights were pleasant.

We never had enough power to run a microwave, a washer, and dryer at the same time. I shorted out the entire apartment complex several times by trying to run the dryer and make a cup of tea in the microwave at the same time. The washer was tiny by design; I could only run very small loads, a couple of shirts and two pairs of jeans at a time. The cycle would take at least 90 minutes to wash and dry a load and it was very expensive. I started using the clothesline on the balcony – the drycleaners were fantastically expensive. Our neighbors saved on their water and electric bills by wearing the same outfits to work all week. It seemed like a European tradition to bathe once a week, on Saturdays, and use bidets the rest of the week. One American home filled its bidet with potpourri to discourage its use by Italian visitors. We were told repeatedly that Americans are too wasteful because we shower every day and change our clothes.

The bank of smart meters would cut off power whenever we least expect it. There was never a schedule but we knew it would be on the hottest or coldest days/nights and it lasted for hours every time. We got used to the pitch-blackness – we were sent back in time, keeping the farming schedule of long time ago before electricity freed us from an agrarian lifestyle.

The underground parking cubicle allotted for each resident was barely enough space for an SUV, with inches to squeeze by sideways on the way out. We unloaded groceries in the driveway and then parked the car in our concrete-walled garage. I will never understand how Dave drove in and out of the garage without scraping the car on both sides of the wall.

The security system was always armed, with speakerphones and cameras for each apartment. No visitor was buzzed in unless recognized by the apartment dwellers. We never saw or knew the property owner – the government docked our required bank account for rent.

To address pollution, the government passed a novel ordinance to discourage driving – cars with even license plates numbers could drive one week and cars with odd license plates numbers could drive another week. Violators caught on the road in the wrong week were fined heavily.

Northern Italians were so glued to their cell phones, they would have had to be surgically removed from their “cellulare.” No matter how remote a place, the familiar “pronto” was everywhere. Service was very good but expensive. Landlines were not dependable and worked intermittently. It was hard to get service in towns built on mountains where lines were difficult to bury a few feet under layers of cobblestone and rock. Roman roads, which were religiously preserved, made it more challenging to bury fiber optic cables, power, or phone lines. Unions had to be consulted before any projects were undertaken and a myriad of notarized forms had to be filled and approved by the arcane bureaucracy.

Italy is a developed country but life there is not as easy as life in the United States. Just paying the phone bill took a good part of the day, following the strange bureaucratic schedules at the mercy and whims of clerks who did not care about serving customers, especially when time came for their mandated afternoon nap. Everything closed down for 2-3 hours.

We loved to eat in “trattorias” and truck stops where a three-course meal cost 5 Euros, was fresh, homemade, and delicious. “Ristorante” was expensive and frequented by rich Italians and tourists. The locals would eye us with suspicion. When speaking Italian, they accepted our presence graciously, but eyed my husband warily since he did not know a word of Italian other than “grazie,” thank you.

And then, there were the Auto Grills, the familiar sight on every Italian “autostrada,” with an array of freshly prepared pastas, sandwiches, coffee bars with café lungo, espresso, café Americano, café macchiato, cappuccino, freshly squeezed blood orange juice, and stinky pay toilets. For some reason, Italians have not mastered the art of providing clean public restrooms for everyone, easily accessible as we do in America. I found that bizarre since the Romans had flushable commodes in their cities and knew the importance of military port-o-potties in preventing disease. In towns, unless you found a pay bathroom, you were in trouble, as businesses allowed the use of their facilities only if you purchased what they sold.

When the Nissan needed new brakes and tires, it took two weeks! We rented a Volvo S60, which I promptly ground to a halt by filling it with gasoline instead of Diesel. The tow-truck came to rescue me. An American would have laughed off my stupidity but this petite and gruff Italian was all business, gesturing “mamma mias” to heaven, calling the dumb American interesting epithets, not realizing that I spoke Italian. It cost 300 Euros in towing fees. I rented a new car with a traditional engine because Diesel was too expensive. I laughed off the offensive disdain for my mistake and my predicament.

Italy is a picturesque country of uncommon landscapes, a jewel of art, history, cuisine, and gelato, with colorful and hospitable people full of charm, but life is very complicated and unnecessarily hard.

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