Jul 26, 2012

In Praise of Italia

7/17/12. Italy, first impressions. We've just entered Italia, via a van ride through the Swiss and German Alps (which was "mind-blowing" as Bobby says). Already we're talking about the ancient origins of humanity and human architecture. What is it about Italy that makes one think backwards? (Where did we come from?)

Italy's Alps.

The Italians seem to have a penchant for building eye dazzling stuff. Crossing the German and Austrian countrysides during yesterday's all day drive, we saw four constantly: 1) "mind blowing" mountainsides, waterfalls, and greenery; 2) charming chateaus and country barns; 3) bright, tasteful, Bauhaus-style newly-built homes/buildings/stores/facilities; and 4) solar panels. The solar panels were everywhere, by the way. All of it beautiful, flawless, inspiring, "Prussian."

But here we are, 15 minutes into Italy, at our first stop in front of a Shell station look-a-like, and the first thing I notice about "today's country" is how the locals look. I've never been here before so my eyes are wide open. People are darker, decidedly more handsome, and enviably more relaxed than anywhere we've yet been in Europe or the US. (Note, we left France just 26 hours ago.) As my character is essentially part time musician and part time agoraphobic, to me, relaxed = awesome. I like these Italians, they've mastered what i consider to be the hardest to maintain state of day to day living.

People all across the pasty white countries we've previously traveled, the US, UK, and Germany respectively, are generally afraid of eye contact. UKers are plenty warm once you get them talking, but Americans and Germans less so. Here in Italy the weather's warm, it looks & feels like a normal summer (unlike everywhere else we've been), there's abundant water, and the temperature is a sunny breezy Italian Alps 72F.

It's July 17. What's there to be uptight about?

At the entrance of this gas station -- the front door mind you, of this little Italian service station are four small cafe tables, the kind you stand and lean on. Spoiler alert -- that's the whole point of this blog. Call me old-fashioned, but anytime there's a place to put your elbows down and prop up your boot you've got a winner. I'll even go so far as to say you've got the makings of a magic moment; a little time in the day; a moment with yourself or friends or your surroundings. What impresses me are the other elements of this casual outdoor setting. There's a large, plastic, sun friendly awning high above the standing area that diffuses the sun and blocks the rain. The walkway is wide enough to accommodate coming and going, plus four "leaning" tables and a few potted plants. Throw in the day's beautiful mountain weather and the area's ancient/rural architecture and you've got a workable situation, folks. Customers pass easily in and out while a single man, a group of ladies, a couple of truck drivers, several of my compadres, a young family, and etc. alternatingly stand and lean, enjoying their coffees, panninis, conversations, and cigarettes.

I tell Escovedo I love that the Italians have made it a priority to stand (and lean) outside. In America there is no anything outside. Nothing. Even avenue restaurants and hotels there's never any provide outdoor seating. Some bars, I guess. But what's the US got against outdoor seating, our standing? In all the other countries we've crossed people sit at lovely outdoor tables (including at their gas stations and rest stops), trying not to bother one another or be seen.

And in Italy, they congregate; they lean; they relax; they move on.

This kinda thing.

Me gusta. All along this Euro tour: thru Spain, France, Britain, Ireland, Scotland, Britain again, France again, Germany, and Austria we've seen THE MOST impressive roadside rest stops known to humanity, at least compared to what we're used to as Americans. The Spanish sell the best local wines, meats, and cured specialities out of their gas stations. It's weird and enchanting. Imagine the most soulful gift shop in the world. No power sodas candy bars or cheap beer. Spanish highway convenience stores are pretty much junk free. Go there for high quality handmade meats, cheeses, breads, coffees, candies, souvenirs, and (God forbid) service -- not Krispy Kremes, fluorescent lights and pine tree air fresheners. From San Sebastian to Barcelona to Madrid these places had at least one gleaming kitchen churning out fresh quality of life marvels, at least one large, colorful, seating area, and at least one shining espresso machine and beer taps bar. Filling up looked a lot like a good night out to me.

Not to mention these Spanish "gas cafes" are tastefully decorated with local history, flavor and character. Don't get me started on how clean and resource efficient their public restrooms are, or the absence of advertising -- everywhere, whether you're driving, standing at a urinal, checking out an end cap, or paying your bill. Espana's gas stations are all class and quality. Thus, I highly recommend driving across Spain. America's money-hungry culture is steroids to cynicism; Spanish artisanal pride and integrity is more fun.

French road stops are pretty much the same as in Spain, but replace artisans with junk food and girlie magazines. Less charming, but still much more quality of life centric than any turnpike mini mall back home. In The UK gas stations are tremendously more garish, even worse than in the US, with gambling machines, mountains of junk food, acres of crap magazines and loads of worthless bullshit for sale. If you're feeling pervy or gossip-deprived British gas stops are a great choice, they place their bustiest soft porn and most outrageous tabloids handily at the front door of every shoppe for impulse purchasing. The patrons in British gas cafes are remarkably unhealthy-looking. "Fat, lethargic and pasty" some have said. Everything appears to be packaged and bleached: the meats, the breads, the veg, and the liquids. Britains might actually be leading the world for "unhealthiest diet."

Germany and Austria are the wealthy nations combining all the above. Get yer lonely mags, brilliant food, packaged junk, and etc. inside the nicest most impressively designed place you've ever seen. (One of these stops made you pay to use the restroom.) Yesterday's Austrian gas cafe yesterday was MUCH NICER than any uptown Whole Foods or Dean & DeLuca. Incredibly smart interior and exterior design, buffet after buffet of fresh foodiness, quality light, seating, atmosphere, etc. -- and just outside in front of the shoppe were the same gas pumps you see at any Exxon. And the Alps. Beautiful. Weird. In a good way.

Here's a French gas cafe.

Then there's Italy. Unassuming, self-possessed, simple. Back in the van and on the highway I see, right away Italians like visual stimulation (while driving) more than any of the other nations we've visited. There's a high coolness factor out here. Italians, I'm guessing, enjoy the visceral satisfaction that comes from looking at something truly cool. Not just well designed, not just colorful or sexy -- cool. Where the English excel at warm and cozy (the English countryside is my favorite place on Earth by the way), and the Germans construction and clarity, and the Spanish love shape and color and modernity, the Italians bring it all together, then take it higher.

We're driving long, undulating highways with Matrixy-looking sound barriers, pointy things sticking off the sides of stainless steel industrial complexes, rhombus-inspired office buildings, centuries of hand-laid brick and ancient, romantic castles. Everything feels sort of lassez-blue-jeans-and-sandals-with-a-clean-collared-shirt. It's sensual and soft, less cluttered but not too orderly, with strong lines, pale bright colors. It's magical and … relaxed. The Italian language looks better when driving, too. "Versamento Pedaggi In Cassa Continua"  -- no idea what that means, but it beats "Aus fahrt." We are driving into a land of poetry.


Post script:
Italian people are wonderful too. After 9 days traveling and playing all over Italy, in its small cities and country villages, I now have two favorite places on earth.

The band walking to dinner in Crema, Italia.

No comments: