A couple living in Italy for two years, and during the pandemic, talk about their experiences, the cultural milieu and give invaluable tips for travel.
We were fresh out of a strict nationwide shutdown in Italy. Much of our existence during the 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 lockdown was about one to two miles in Florence. From the famous Duomo to a shopping district up the street from our favorite outdoor market, Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, we walked through every corner and curve we could find.
While waking up to the great synagogue for our first year, then to peek around the corner to watch the horizons over the River Arno was an experience far from conceptualizing our Italy experience when we were filling out immigration papers in New York in 2019. The wine, cheese, and bread-runs at specialty markets over cobblestone and past ornate doors became the norm at the height of a crisis. As the young folks say, “We were Gucci.” But one of Firenze’s most expensive neighborhoods became our gilded cage.
So, like we did with much of our decisions when we needed to leap, we jumped off of a cliff, or perhaps a mountain. We took our savings and traveled throughout Italy for as long and as far as we could. After crunching numbers, we figured out we had 32 days to trek the country. With a limited command of Italian, and a forgotten skill on driving a stick shift car, we traversed five regions, visiting multiple cities and towns.
When we finished, we knew we navigated the waters of international travel like many tourists, but with a difference. We were one of the few Americans and Black Americans who were living in the country without an affiliation to an Italian family, the U.S. military or a sports team at the time. We were far from celebrity life, and on a budget. While there and before we lived in Italy, we often scrolled through various social media posts exhibiting the glitz and glamor of the southernmost European nation. The photos made you want to jump on a plane and land in the middle of an old street to eat a plate of cacio e pepe.
Indeed it is breathtaking, but there is so much to know when journeying in a country with complicated racial identities and citizenship laws. So, we came up with the idea to launch a particular, no-holds-bar travel series from our lens.
This series, Black Italia, is our journey through Italy after its lockdown and even during. There, we saw a side of the country grappling with a global crisis, and working to economically recover. This is not a fantastical story, but one of practicality and magnificent discoveries of the landscape and ourselves.
It took us two years to start this series because we had to readjust to the U.S., all the while, recover from an epic experience. Our series is titled Black Italia, because in our travels of the world, as in many places, our skin is a passport into multiple social negotiations. In other regions, it is our nationality. In Italy, we were of the deep moorish hue and that at times came with a particular social choreography. The dance could be graceful, and at other times, it evoked jumpy, jab-filled warrior movements.
In the coming stories, some will be written by Kaia, others by Duane, and some together. While we recognize this series is just our view, we intend for it to provide a critical perspective, and ultimately add to travel discourse, and what it means to travel in one of the top destinations in the world.
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To start, we want to talk about the general landscape. Italy is divided into 20 administrative regions that are broken into four parts: north, central, south and the islands. Each region has provinces. The most popular destinations for U.S. tourists are Rome, Pisa and Florence, in the central part of the country; Venice and Milan, in the northern area; the Amalfi Coast and Naples in the south; and Sicily, which is an island and the southernmost part of Italy. Another island is Sardinia, which is a local favorite, but growing as a destination.
As a peninsula, the country is mostly surrounded by water as it looks like a high-heeled boot sticking out of the European mainland. On the western side, it is the Ligurian, Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian seas. At the heel of the landmass is the Ionian Sea, while on the eastern side is the Adriatic Sea.
Most of the country is hilly and mountainous with several exceptions of flat lands such as Florence. If you drive from region-to-region, you will be introduced to a range of beautiful peaks known as the Italian Alps. Because of its geological structure, Italy experiences frequent seismic activity. While there, it is highly likely that you might feel a small shake, rattle or roll.
Knowing the breakdown of the regions will determine how you travel to the country. While most people select Rome as the initial destination, to get to the others, many fly, drive or catch a train. Another option is taking the ferry. You can go as a seated passenger or with your car.
While choosing where to go, please look at the weather. For example, if you’re traveling during the summer months. Three things you must know. 1. It gets hella hot when traveling between June and August, which is peak travel season for Americans. 2. August is the general holiday for Italians. 3. The mosquitos are quite disrespectful.
Let’s talk about this heat. While in Florence, temperatures in July and August rose to over 100 degrees some days. Other places we visited such as Sicily and Matera sweltered in the daytime along with humidity. However, Milan is cooler. Regardless, if you plan to peruse the voluminous museums, historical sites and shops, be ready to wear comfortable walking shoes and drink lots of water.
Reportedly, a lot of tourists must receive medical attention when they overheat in the warmest months. To avoid these issues, it is important to be honest about your physical ability to move in extreme weather, but you should schedule times to cool off. Or, enjoy a gelato or granita, a Sicilian shaved ice treat.
Holiday in Italy. Unlike Americans, Italians are vigilant about holidays and time off. Traditionally, August is the month when most people travel. Like tourists, they too enjoy their country, while others might go abroad, but what you will find is either businesses running in limited capacity, while some are even closed. This is even in tourist areas. What will be absent from cities are many everyday residents.
Zanzare. The Italian word for mosquitoes is zanzare. Know this term because you will be assaulted. From about June to September, is what is called the “red season” because it is the time of the warmest months, and mosquito activity is high. However, mosquitoes were buzzing even in January when we were there.
More accurately, mosquitoes be viscous and quite disrespectful. So much so, we have seen the legs and arms of foreigners that are pock-marked with bites.
Far from entomologists, in Italy, there is a day mosquito and night mosquito. The most aggressive is the Asian tiger mosquito which comes out when the sun goes down. Not only does it have a loud buzz that will haunt you all night, it is quick and hard to kill. So much so, we could not sleep at first because we were swatting until the wee hours before investing in repellant.
The wrong thing to do is underestimate these mosquitoes. They can and will ruin your vacation if you do not come prepared. Also please note that many windows in Italy do not have screens, so it is easy for all types of bugs to get in your house or room. When the Asian tigers gain entry, they will find an area to hide to annoy you the whole stay.
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In all, the travel to Italy during its warmest months offers so many surprises. However, bring your sunblock and loose-fitting clothes. Better yet, this is the best time and place to buy a countrywide favorite, linen wear. The cheapest finds we bought were in Naples.
If you vacation to Italy within the red season, make sure to plan indoor activities and limit walking during the hottest times of the day. For us, we cooled off the most in coastal towns where we could swim. When we were away from water, we remained hydrated at all times and often rested in the shade. While the seawater was cold on the western side, the Adriatic sea on the eastern shore was like warm bath water.
As we sometimes dragged our bodies back into our lodging after being out for the day, a nice bottle of cold prosecco, a local birra (beer), a regional sparkling water and some gelato after dinner certainly chilled us out.
Learn Italian: Greetings
- Ciao — Hello (informal)
- Salve — Greetings
- Buongiorno — Good Morning (usually said until the evening)
- Buondì — Good Morning
- Buon pomeriggio — Good Afternoon (very formal, not said often)
- Buonasera — Good evening
- Buona serata — Good evening
- Buona Notte — Good Night (usually before going to bed)
- Benvenuto — Welcome
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