How to survive a trip to Italy

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It’s long been established that I am the luckiest man on the planet. How else could you explain that despite being a short, funny-looking and relatively average guy with few marketable skills, I manage to enjoy a beautiful family and live a comfortable life of international adventure? Its either pure luck or I was a spittoon cleaner in Dodge City in a previous life and this is some kind of karmic payback.

For the record I am not able to enjoy a life of international adventure as a reward for my professional and financial success, quite the contrary, I live a lifestyle fueled by equal doses of blind luck and total financial irresponsibility. It’s not for everybody but it works pretty well for me.

Most recently I was lucky enough to send three weeks in Florence, Italy, during the holiday season. For those of you who have never spent Christmas in an Italian city, there are few things you should be prepared for.

Primarily you should be prepared to hear bells … giant church bells that clang loudly at the top of every hour then again at the half hour and yet again to call the faithful to mass. I can’t say for sure how often they hold mass during the Christmas season but based on the continual chiming of the huge cathedral bells I would estimate it’s about every 20 minutes or so. The exception to this would be anytime you’re trying to sleep off the bottle of Grappa you had with dinner; then they ring the bells every five minutes … I’m sure of it.

Grappa is another Italian treasure to be prepared for. Every eatery, vineyard, monastery and stationary store has its own unique Grappa recipe all claiming to be the best. As always, I felt the need to do exhaustive research to determine which was indeed the best Grappa and it turns out that each and every one was the best … as I was drinking it. Grappa is as strong as it is tasty so extreme care should be taken when consuming it because it has been known to cause spontaneous singing, excessive flirting and outrageous exaggeration (all things that are very out of character for me).

It’s my theory that Grappa is the reason Italian men think they are great lovers; after downing a bottle of wine with dinner then another bottle of Grappa afterward they wake up the next morning with a headache, no memory of the previous night and a missing shoe. Naturally, they all assume they must have done well with the ladies because, after all, they are Italian men.

The Italian food in Florence was incredible but be prepared for the fact they just call it “food”, that can be confusing for an unseasoned traveler. Schedule at least two hours for a proper Italian meal and don’t ask what it is, just eat it … trust me!

Next, you should be prepared to walk when visiting downtown Florence because the roads are older than our nation and were built for carts drawn by very thin horses, so everyone walks. Your preparations for walking through downtown foot traffic should include a pair of sturdy shoes, an umbrella (for the inevitable rain and fending off street vendors) and eye protection. You’ll need eye protection because when it does rain and the umbrellas pop up, the tip of a short Italian’s umbrella will put your eye out quicker than a Daisey Red Rider BB gun. You’ve been warned!

When visiting Italy you should make your plans very flexible. It turns out that airline departures, bus schedules, store hours and even the schedule for those darned bells are purely advisory in nature. As a rule, Italians do things when they show up without much regard for the time. I think it’s the bells … they hear them chime and think it’s the 4 p.m. bell but it’s actually the call for the 4:15 mass, except on even numbered months, when it would be the 4:12 p.m. mass. No wonder time is a mystery to them.

Finally, be prepared to learn a lot of history; I learned that Florence is the ancestral home of the Ninja Turtles. They have museums dedicated to Donatello, Micheangelo, Raphael and Leonardo, who the locals claimed were Italian artists but what are the odds of four famous artists with Ninja Turtle names?

I figured that last one out without ever having to go into a museum. Am I lucky or what?

Rick Seley is an award-winning humor columnist. He may be reached at


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