Go to Italy
Okay, so I haven’t traveled to that many places yet, but Italians have got to be the friendliest people on the planet. Being in this country feels like getting a giant hug. I love it here.
I’ve never been anywhere else where the locals know you don’t speak the language but will speak it to you anyways, smiling and laughing and gesturing and somehow miraculously communicating everything important despite the language barrier. The first time I was in Italy, I managed to have a conversation in three different languages in a perfume shop: I spoke Spanish to an Italian man who understood it; he spoke Italian to me, which I could vaguely comprehend due to the similarities in vocabulary to Spanish; and every once in a while we'd toss in an English word. And when I attempt to speak Italian, I get a standing ovation. At the Tronchetto station in Venice, I couldn’t find my bus and timidly approached a group of Italian nonnas to ask if they knew where it might be. When they pointed me in the right direction and I asked “sinistra?” (left?) they clapped and shouted, “Brava!!!” I mean, really. Who wouldn’t love the Italians?
On my last morning in Venice, I was sitting on my backpack outside my hostel on the residential island of Giudecca, eating breakfast with my legs swinging over the side of a canal. This was my daily routine for my first (and sometimes second and third) meal, since Venice is expensive and my hostel banned outside food to encourage guests to patronize their own restaurant. Never again will I book a hostel without a kitchen, but that’s beside the point. I was pretty much alone next to the water, because it was altogether too cold to be picnicking outside. A man with thick, shoulder-length grey hair and a baby bundled against his chest walked up to me, and I realized I’d seen him the morning before while I was running around the small island.
“Do you speak English?” he asked, and when I answered yes, he told me a secret spot to get coffee in Piazza San Marco. Everywhere in the piazza charges a twelve-euro price for coffee because the tourists practically throw their wallets at Italian restaurants with a view, but there’s apparently a bar in the back of one of Venice’s oldest and most cafés that has normal prices. “That way, you can have a chic end to your breakfast,” he said, eyeing my peanut butter sandwich with a wink.
Later that day, I arrived at my hostel in Rome after an anxiety-ridden bus ride, and the first thing I needed to do was change my reservation from six nights to two so that I could get back to Spain. Fully expecting a difficult conversation and a hefty fee, I was instead greeted with a brilliant smile and “Va bene, you booked through the website, so we make an exception.” The woman at the front desk showed me my room and gave me a discount to drinks at the hostel bar. I ordered a vegan sandwich from the bar and the bartender was thrilled to find out I'm vegan and talked my ear off about her vegan roommates, though she herself eats meat.
The next day, still in a haze of unease about my visa, I wandered through the center of the city. I made it to the Trevi Fountain and then the Spanish Steps (of course). Too hungry to care about finding a vegan restaurant or grocery store, I collapsed in a tiny bar just off the Piazza di Spagna. Three Italian men working there, all over the age of seventy-five, immediately swooped in and ushered me to a table, loudly telling each other to take care of the bella signorina. When I ordered an eggplant-mozzarella panino without the cheese (the only semi-vegan thing on the menu) they grinned indulgently and brought a glass of wine with it.
Every time I asked for directions, international stamps, a veganized dish, whether I could get an order of french fries to go (major props to the hostel bar for that one), I got the same response: a smile and a torrent of cheerful Italian.
I don't want to generalize about an entire country as if everyone there is the same, of course; Italy in particular is known for strong cultural differences among its many regions. But I can say, after having visited various parts of the country three times now, that Italian warmth is unparalleled. It feels like everyone is rooting for you, even if you're just dashing through Termini Station to make your bus. There's nowhere else I'd rather have had my visa panic, and that's high praise.
PS. I missed a day of blogging due to the visa dates mishap, but I'm back on track!