The biggest highlight of the Italy trip was the people and friends I met along the way, both old and new. I spent Christmas with very good friends in Rome, enjoying a gigantic and wonderfully traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Through the magic of facebook, I re-connected with an old friend from New Paltz - someone I haven't seen in at least 9 years, maybe longer, and we spent a great night and day together, wandering around Rome and taking trains all over Italy (that part was actually a mistake, but a funny mistake that allowed me to see Fabriano and meet some interesting characters along the way). I shared some meals and drinks with a lovely couple that I met for the first time on Christmas Eve, I caught up with another friend from Amsterdam who bought me to a bar where they allowed us to stay past closing time and drink grappa - and that was only the beginning of the trip.
In Naples, I met up with Italian friends I know from Holland - two girls that I had only met once or twice previously in Amsterdam - and they offered to show me around their home city. Of course, you can't see all of Naples in one or two days, but man, I sure did give it a shot. They walked me all over the place, took me directly to their favorite pizza place and restaurants, told me stories about where they used to hang out when they were kids, and I was even introduced to one of their families. The same thing happened in Sorrento - without making any effort to make a lot of plans, I stayed at the home of a good friend and enjoyed a big dinner with his parents before wandering around the town with two wonderful people at night.
I could go on and on like this - every place I went has a great story, all made possible only because of the people that were there. What was truly one of the most special nights was New Years Eve. I went along with some friends to a party in Taranto at a beautiful house where I was the only non-Italian guest. Almost no one there knew me, I certainly had no frame of reference for where I was or what was going on - and I had a spectacular time. As everyone shouted Italian around me all night, I felt more and more at home. Anyone who did speak English sought me out at some point during the evening to introduce themselves and talk to me, and I kept convincing myself more and more that I could understand this beautiful language that had been filling my ears for the past week. Many of the people at the party had known each other for a long time and were clearly so happy to be together, and it was just simply the best atmosphere to be around. There has really never been a time in my life when language was so entirely unimportant for having a really good time. When the countdown to 2009 took place, I was hugging and kissing old friends, new friends, and strangers - the same way I would have done if I had been in Amsterdam or New York or anywhere in the world.
Up in Conegliano, I stayed with some new friends and their family for a couple days, again, welcomed with unbelievably warm hospitality, and again, unable to even approach the point where I might get hungry (the food... the food!). I loved exploring the town that these new friends grew up in, going to their neighborhood bars, admiring the view from the top of the castle, and just listening to the stories that came up. I managed to spend almost no time by myself until I got to Siena (on the evening of the 4th). And even in Siena, there was always someone to talk to at a cafe or shop. In Pisa, I had a lovely conversation entirely in Italian with the nice guy who owned the sandwich shop across from the place I was staying. I'd like to reiterate, I don't really speak or understand Italian, but after a couple weeks I had enough of a collection of badly pronounced words to have entire conversations that somehow happened with no problem.
Italy works in a way that is the total opposite of Holland. You must talk to people, there's no other way of figuring out what's going on. Trains and buses are always late, track assignments get changed, the signs aren't correct, the clocks all say something different, it can be hard to find street signs, the menu will be totally wrong, the buses don't indicate what stop is coming up or have a route posted inside, there's often no train conductor that comes around to take tickets, etc. I got on a train going the wrong direction at least twice, and both times there was a team of people who wanted to help me out when I asked for assistance. I never, ever had to worry that I wouldn't eventually get where I wanted to go. During my ride from Conegliano to Siena, my train compartment filled up with 6 people and 2 dogs. Within minutes everyone was sharing food, I had pizza and coffee more or less forced upon me, and everyone knew my destination - so when we approached and I wasn't paying attention, my seatmates grabbed my bags and said "this is your stop!" (I'm assuming they said something along those lines, it was all Italian) and shouted directions at me about where to transfer and to have a good trip and everyone shouted ciao! ciao! as I squeezed my way off the train. No one ever checked my ticket, some of us had seat reservations, others didn't - it didn't matter. Whenever I was with my Italian friends at a bar or restaurant and we were speaking English, the server or bartender would ask "where is your friend from?" and then often continue with "are you having a good time? Where have you been?" in a way that felt really genuine.
I guess that's what I'm trying to convey by going on and on with this sentiment - I felt genuinely welcome everywhere I went. I never just crashed at someone's house, I always shared food and wine and coffee with them. I wasn't just shown around to all the major touristy parts of various cities, I was given stories and saw the back streets and the views from the top. I didn't plan things out in advance, I was generally always late for whatever I wanted to do, and I feel like I found a country where that attitude works just fine.