This post is my latest in a short series celebrating the success of my random and wonderful traveling adventures with friends over the last month. This adventure in particular is not a typical travel story – not at all glamorous, with minimal photo ops. But before you wonder why you are bothering to read this, give me a moment to explain…
As an ex-patriot living in Italy, I have a distinct need to really understand this country and the people in it. The more I get out of my bubble of American white girl, the richer my life becomes. So my recent work trip with a fabulous group of fellow non-American teachers to a not-so-vibrant suburb of Milan called Cassano D’Adda was exactly the kind of trip that shows me the side of Italy that most foreigners don’t experience. Full immersion in Italian culture brings me that much closer to understanding Italian life, and my fabulous friends. So, here it is.
My friend, Vale, the head of a Bologna school of English, is a bottomless resource of fun, and also my boss. A few months ago she asked me to be one of the three performers in her English Quiz Show for children on this special trip to perform in Cassano D’Adda. She made a clear point of telling me she wanted me to come because I am “fun to travel with.”
Despite the inadvertent non-acknowledgement of my actual pertinent skills for the job (performing and English teaching), I was flattered. So, naturally, I accepted the invitation.
I walked up to Vale’s house with my co-worker Martine at 5:45am on a damp, dark Monday. She was sitting in her idling, heated car ready to go. We jumped in and picked up the missing member of our team, Giulia, a few blocks away, who was armed with coffee and croissants. Mix Giulia’s offerings with my own bag of Italian style chocolate chip cookies (delicious and way less sugar and fat than their American counterparts) and we were pretty much our own traveling cafe. Let me tell you, there were a whole lot of crumbs in laps on that particular drive.
On the road to Milano we went…well, ahem, Cassano D’Adda to be specific. We had a long day ahead of us – at least a two-hour drive, then set-up, and finally two performances of our Quiz Show for young English students. And we did it with gusto. Martine, Giulia and I performed and sang our hearts out while Vale took pics and networked with the teachers. We were a great team.
We wrapped up our workday by pre-setting for our next show at 8am the following morning and then headed out in search of lunch in little Cassano D’Adda, proud of our work, relieved to be done for the day, and absolutely famished.
We pulled up to the restaurant recommended to us for lunch by the teachers at the school. It was so closed, there wasn’t even a soul remaining inside other than a waitress who was peacefully eating her lunch in the dark.
We were baffled. In Bologna, the lunch hour is 1pm to 3pm. It was currently 2:30pm. How could this be possible? The Italians never cease to be a mystery.
We got back in the car and fired up our smart phones, following Tripadvisor suggestions and the Google map to the nearby center of the city where there were a cluster of recommended restaurants written into the Google map, meanwhile debating the mystery of the lunch hour. We decided the issue with finding an open restaurant was that Northern Italians eat their meals earlier, combined with the fact that we were in a small city.
After several more failed attempts to find a restaurant, a whirlwind tour of the small typical Italian city, and a few run-ins with local characters, we ended up at the last Google recommendation, i Satiri, with an open kitchen. The environment was comfortable and we were relieved. Our waitress ended up in somewhat of an argument with their frustrated cook who wanted to close the kitchen. She returned to our table with an apologetic look and an announcement that the compromise was panini.
We could order any panino on the menu, and that was all. Well, I took two. 🙂 The rest of my team had a panino and a dessert. Everything was delectable. And I’m not just saying that because, despite my vegetarianism, I could have eaten a horse I was so hungry.
After lunch we followed Vale’s iPhone and a random man biking with a stick to our hotel, the surprisingly large and modern Park Hotel, most certainly serving business travelers in the Milan area. Cassano D’Adda is a bit too close to Milan to have its own identity, and yet a bit too far to really reap the resources of Milan. The hotel is perfect for salesmen traveling to and from the Milan.
We reached our room, a huge room with four beds (a typical solution for European travel, rather than taking two rooms with two beds each). After some delirious laughter, we all konked out.
Disliking naps, I got myself up after a cat nap and headed out in search of a café in which to do some computer work. I strolled around the nearby industrial shopping area, and found my way into a small, typical, Italian café. Despite the café’s lack of apparent identity, I liked the music and decided to stay. The music reminded me of home. I quickly forgot my plans for tea and decided on a glass of prosecco instead, and sat there for a few hours on my tablet, waiting for the gals to wake up, and making friends with the owners of the cafe who had dreams of moving to America. We danced, talked sports (there was a big soccer game), and had a great time. Finally, my phone rang. It was Vale. “WHERE are you?” she asked in disbelief. She and the rest of the team were already in the car, en route to dinner. “Ok, I just pulled up outside,” she said.
I said a hurried goodbye to my new friends and ran outside and jumped in the car.
“Peggy!” my team laughed at me. “WHAT were you doing? How many proseccos have you had?”
“Just two, I swear!” I defended myself, laughing. “It was a great place!”
They teased me all the way to the restaurant, a pizza/pasta place the hotel had recommended called Pizzeria Il Birbante. I was thrilled upon arrival. The environment was lively and comfortable, and they had Brooklyn Lager on draft – this was my kind of place. I exclaimed enthusiastically to the bartender, and he chuckled in surprise when he figured out what I was so excited about. In Italy, the little things like this that bring you a little bit of home are something to be revered.
Being the truly awesome team they are, Vale, Martine, and Giulia all ordered the Brooklyn Lager with me. Ordering dinner proved more difficult – the selection of pasta on the menu was so different from Bologna, as Italy’s cuisine is so regionally centered, it was hard to choose from all the interesting options.
I ordered the gnocchi. Everyone loved their dinners, the beers, and the company.
It was an all-around fabulous day, and we slept hard and peacefully that night at the Park Hotel.
The next day was a work day. We woke up early and enjoyed being the lively table of women at 7am sharp at the hotel breakfast, surrounded by a sea of serious faces and grey and black suits slightly diffused by our colorful clothing and happy conversation. We performed three shows that day at the school, said goodbye to the satisfied teachers, packed up the show, and jumped back in the car.
For lunch we had finally learned our lesson and ate fast food, then headed back to Bologna, leaving little Cassano D’Adda behind. The car trip was just another opportunity for some heart to hearts – culture, Italy, America, English, guys, work, you name it, the topics with limitless. Smiles to the end, it wasn’t until we reached Bologna that I realized I had never had such a successful trip with a group of people who weren’t best friends. A combination of simply being nice and gracious people, the team was also well-balanced personality-wise. The experience was awesome…one that will remain fresh in my mind for a long time.