Vexations and Conundrums – June 2023

All my life I was intrigued by Italy.  The very name of this country evoked fanciful images: Sophia Loren, gondolas, paintings by Michelangelo.

When I was young, in the 1950s, Italian food often meant the ethnic food we were introduced to, via poor imitations in our fast-food culture. There was spaghetti in cans (Chef Boyardee) or frozen pizza, from a cardboard box, ready to pop in the oven. Even these versions of Italian culture were considered novel and fun by children wanting a “foreign” experience.           The television marketing was effective, and we pretended to be more international for eating foods from a country about which we actually knew very little. Well, we knew about our Italian Uncle John.  He was darkly handsome and very Roman-looking, particularly his pronounced nose. Family legend had it that he wore a white suit to meet my mother after he had courted her sister and was ready to demonstrate serious intentions. A white suit was a novelty, and marked him as dashing, bold and fearlessly masculine. When I thought about Italian men, I assumed they must all be like my Uncle John.

Only later in life did I introduce myself to the real Italian experience by traveling to Italy. My husband and I finally settled on the Tuscan region as our destination. Wine, good food and art were all on the agenda. This was a trip designed to savor life.

We were gifted a guidebook by my husband’s son. I went through the book with fervor, deciding what we could see in our limited stay. I used a highlighter for things we must experience, and attached small sticky yellow markers for important maps we would need to reference quickly as we traveled from city to city. The book was full of notations. 

On the flight over, we were seated next to an Italian gentleman (dark, handsome, pronounced nose) who was happy to serve as our tour guide. “You must try the Brunello di Montalcino wine. One of the three greatest wines of the world,” he instructed. He spoke softly and with authority. “The top three wines are all Italian, of course.” He said this with no trace of humor. I was grateful there were no French citizens within earshot.

Our impromptu guide recommended that we eat the Ribollita, a cabbage and bean soup, and as an appetizer, try pork sausage, called soppressato.

Finally, he informed us that Italians make the best cigar in the world, called Toscano Antica. (I wondered what Fidel Castro would have thought of this boast.) Actually, I was intrigued that someone held such inflated views of his country, like a father bragging on a son. 

I was convinced we were heading to the perfect destination, and we were not even on the ground.

When we finally arrived in Florence, we rented a car. My mother-in-law had warned us, “You will be tired from travel. You may want to consider hiring a taxi.” My husband insisted we needed to have our own car. The drive to the hotel was only twenty minutes from the airport.

We got hopelessly lost leaving the airport. We headed for Prado instead of Florence. When we finally found Florence we drove in circles for a seeming eternity, searching for our hotel. Street markings were in stone, centuries old and eroded beyond recognition. Motorcyclists drove daredevil-style, cutting in between cars. Everyone honked at our lost driving. It was only early evening in Florence, but for our body clocks it was the middle of the night. We were frazzled. 

My husband finally stopped the car and took our handy guidebook into a store to get directions to our hotel. In his relief at learning of the proximity of our hotel, he left our guidebook on the counter. We would not realize this until morning when we couldn’t recall where we stopped.

We were on our own. We would have to improvise and proceed without our research notes. We would fall into a foreign land and let the people and places guide us naturally. Our steps would not be graceful, but the embrace we were to feel would be worth our stumbles.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit:

Katina Pontikes
Latest posts by Katina Pontikes (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *