Returning to Italy with Franca feels like coming home, and not just as we arrive back into Alberobello for Christmas, but every time we cross the border there’s an immediate casualness to life that permeates the air and says, “bentornato“.
As we made our way south to Puglia for the winter – following from our four months in Berlin – we spent a little time revisiting Verona and Bologna in the north so that we could reconnect with a lovely Couchsurfing family and friend in the former, and to explore more of rumoured growing vegan scene in the latter, which is so internationally famous for being the home of prosciutto and ragu.
From the moment we stopped in our first service station in Italy following our Blablacar journey through Germany and Austria, I could already see those familiar characteristics that Italian people have that relax me so much. Their familiarity and manner of conversing with the bar staff as they grind, temper, and pour their first espresso shot of the day is quite special to observe. That particular lean against the bar, picking at the crumbs of what was once a soft and freshly baked croissant. They gesticulate and smile, much as they would with a family member or friend, yet with a complete stranger. The way they interact relaxes you and says, “you’re one of us” – and that’s just how I feel.
Slow Travel, Slow Trains, Slow Life
Train stations in particular work for a perfect case-in-point of how slow paced, yet workable, life in Italy is; so pulling into Verona Porta Nuova Station to disembark from our car share proved as a great example of that tranquillity. People meander between cars in motion, looking neither left nor right, pulling their suitcases behind them without much care to how close it comes to being run over by another passing car. It’s beautiful for me, yet frustrating for Franca. Where I see zen-like and relaxed attitudes, Franca sees people lost in their own little world, and at times it’s hard to deny how right she is; but when I’m inside of my own little bubble of perfect ambience too and walking between them all, it’s difficult not to get pulled in with them.
Meeting with our former Couchsurfing host in the car park, it’s much like meeting a long-lost friend who you want to know everything about. Every little detail about life, love, and plans for the future. To me, it feels distinctly Italian in nature. We’ve reconnected and re-stayed with Couchsurfing hosts two or three times in the past, and whilst we love those individuals and everything about them; this familiarity isn’t always matched, no matter how much we equally love our time spent together.
Stepping into the familiar surroundings of the family home, the welcome from Susy’s family is beyond heart-warming, and into motion goes an Italian welcoming tradition that finally tells me I’m back, I’m home again.
Break Bread With Me
We’ve been welcomed into many homes over the past two years we’ve been travelling thanks to the wonders of Couchsurfing, and for each country we’ve been to we’ve received in different ways; but the three that have always been the most memorable are those of Italy, France, and Spain.
Shown to a seat at the family table, offers of refreshment are immediate and relentless. Not aggressively – far from it – rather, you’re offered the chance to make a choice between something or nothing, but judging from the brightness of your hosts smile, it’d be a grave mistake should you choose to decline. Making the wrong choice in these first few moments can be a personal slight to your host, and if you’re intending to spend several days in their company, it’s best not to put a divide between you from the start. Thankfully, neither of us have made that mistake and have always taken the offers on first request – if not the second – mostly because we’re always so curious to try what’s on offer.
The difference in spreads in France, Spain, and Italy aren’t broad and often tend to be a similar selection of olives, fresh bread and cheese that will most likely appear from nowhere and spread themselves upon the table; however, of the three, Italy has for many reasons remained my favourite due to both the French and Spanish tending to bring more meat and sausages to the table than our diet welcomes.
Sipping on our first coffee of the day, we all talk in a mixture of Italian and scattered English about what has occurred in the year since our last meeting. The coffee is bitter sweet, dark and striking, and loved with every drop. We help ourselves to fruit and chunks of dark fondente chocolate (Side note for vegans: most fondente chocolate in Italy is vegan), though bread and other typical nibbles such as biscuits – and probably olives – are readily at hand.
Between the stories shared I can’t help but daydream for a moment of a time when we’ll be able to host others in return, to repay the favour and provide hospitality to so many of the new friends we’ve made whilst living our life of slow travel. Welcoming past Couchsurfing hosts especially, making them feel as at home as I felt right there in that moment at the table.
It’s Not Just This Moment
During all of my confessed love for this typical welcome in Italy, I can’t help but feel that perhaps it’s related more to our choice to Couchsurf rather than it being a regular custom of Italian life, but even within that same day we again experience a warm welcome, an acceptance, and nourishment too.
Exploring Verona for the second time, we made our way towards the centre, opting to stick to our usual choice of walking so as to increase the chances of an accidental find of something off-the-path. For every walk that we usually take, perhaps nine times out of ten we’ll discover some nice scenes that deserve a photograph or four, but for that other one time we’ll find something special that’s worth remembering and recommending to you. This was one such occasion. We stumbled upon a small pizzeria that prides itself on being the highest rated vegan pizza takeaway on TripAdvisor for Verona and in order to know more about the local vegan scene, we entered to ask a few questions.
To our luck, both of the two owners were on hand to answer all of our questions about veganism in Verona and they were visibly proud to tell us of how their local clientèle is becoming more open to trying new variations on old classics like foccacia, pizza, and cakes; and when it came for us to depart and continue on our way they were kind enough to give us a couple of their vegan treats to take with us. It was that same friendliness and level of hospitality that we’d experienced earlier. They wanted to share things that made them happy with us, and as we both enjoyed our rich chocolate sweets we felt that same happiness too – and it’s not an isolated incident either, as we found in Bologna a few days later where we were again offered sweet treats to take with us after making enquiries again, this time in a vegan bakery called Canape.
The Heel Of The Boot
If I had to choose one place that I’ve felt most at home in Italy, it’s Puglia, the regularly described “Heel of the boot” and Franca’s home region.
When I pause to ponder for a second between the treats that are offered to me at almost every table I’m asked to sit at, I can’t help but wonder if it’s my being in a relationship with Franca that brings out such hospitality from our hosts.
“Am I getting preferential treatment?“, I ask myself. And the truth is that it’s just how things are here in Italy, though it seems especially so the further south you go. People may look at you from the side of their eyes and at a distance, but up close they’re a friend-of-a-friend whose friendship just needs a little kindling to really roar into life.
Partly, it’s about tradition too which Puglia seems to have in abundance, and the more time I spend in the region watching how people interact with each other in the piazza‘s, talking with friends of twenty and thirty years, strolling and laughing together, or sitting beneath the trees that surround a small fountain in the middle of the square; the more I learn how these friendships and family ties are built on these traditions of togetherness, welcoming, and hospitality.
Share A Special Moment
Coming back to Alberobello for Christmas and enjoying these special moments of sharing stories and the latest news over sweet treats and fresh fruit has been something I’ve been looking forward to ever since we decided to make the trip, and in the past week alone I’ve enjoyed each and every occasion where it’s happened – especially when we visited Franca’s great grandmother in a nearby town, where freshly baked goods are thrust into my hands like I’ve never seen food before. I’m loving every second.
I urge you to visit Italy and experience it for yourself. I’m sure no matter which region you travel to you’ll find the same warm smile, open arms, and a seat at the table; but for that something extra special and for the image of a more rustic Italy that you just won’t find in the larger cities – travel to Puglia and feel at home.
Have you been welcomed into an Italian home?