just ask a local…
by Janice Nigro
On a recent trip to Rome, I overheard a guest ask the hotel concierge to recommend a good restaurant. She specifically requested a restaurant that only locals would go to. “That’s a fantasy,” I thought, “We are in Rome, where exactly does such a place exist?” There are so many tourists in Rome today that Romans probably wonder where they can have a local dinner experience.
It’s possible that the guest at the hotel was sent to the kind of restaurant she was thinking of, but doubtful. So just how do you have a local experience when you are on holiday in a big city like Rome?
Learn the local language. It’s an obvious strategy-know at least some words of the local language-but we do less and less of it. Using the local language with locals is becoming more and more difficult as many people speak English in most big cities around the world. People are generally very proud to speak English, but if you show them you know a little more than the average tourist, they might also breathe a giant sigh of relief.
Do something completely mundane. Learning a language is not the thing we can do to prepare for wherever we go. Fluency in any single romance language can carry you pretty far though. Even with my limited Italian, there is nowhere in Italy I won’t find interesting. I can always learn new words. So while there are things you might never do at home, like go to a laundromat, a visit to one in Italy or in any country can be a chapter right out of most language books. Who doesn’t like the Italian word for washing machine-lavatrice (remember “ce” is pronounced che). Furthermore you have a different opportunity to meet local people rather than just other tourists.
Take a trip to the post office or hang around a church on a Saturday where you are guaranteed to see a wedding. Weddings are not necessarily so different looking in Italy or France except that the church is probably a few hundred years old and the people are superbly well-dressed. No matter where they are from, even in the smallest towns of Sicily, Italians simply know how to dress.
Shop where locals shop. While I am always searching for the best gelaterie, my mother looks for wine shops. She knows Italian wines, but she also knows that some of the best ones never leave Italy. So that’s how we discovered a great wine and also a great restaurant in Sorrento.
There are lemon trees everywhere in Sorrento but Campania also has wine. We learned this from a wine shop owner, Carmine (yes, it is said with an “a” on the end), who spoke perfect English. For the first few minutes my mom and Carmine did the dance of wines that she knew of. Finally, Carmine changed course and told us, as Italians do, about the fantastic but unknown wines that come from the area. He introduced us to a local wine made from a local grape that was brought to Campania by the Greeks. That makes the grape, aglianico, an especially old one.
The rapport my mother had established with Carmine led him to reveal another bit of important information, where we should have dinner. She asked, and he suggested a restaurant that he takes his own family to. He gave us a little more of his local philosophy-although the pizza is good there, it’s not the right thing to order at a restaurant. Take the ravioli stuffed with eggplant.
Ask for the story. At the restaurant, the owner left us with a bottle of limoncello with sort of a story. He told us that Italians do not buy limoncello; they make their own because alcohol, you see, is expensive. But lemons, lemons in Sorrento are cheap. On Capri, I remembered to do my thing there as well, ask for the story. The island is a mecca for day tourists. I have read that up to 20,000 tourists might descend upon the island in any single day. With limited space, it is hard to imagine how you can enjoy Capri if there are so many other people around doing probably the same thing. We managed because we stayed overnight and well, because we learned a little bit about the people while doing a typically touristy thing on Capri: having sandals handmade for us.
You can buy handmade sandals everywhere, but you want a shop where they make them for you while you wait. DNA did not grace my feet with beauty. For this reason, I did not take the adventure into one of these shops that seriously. For some reason, I thought I should reveal this fact to Salvatore (the shoemaker)-but in Italian everything sounds nice anyway. I had learned that he had made sandals for some of the world’s most famous, so he knew what to say-that my feet would be beautiful in his sandals. His colleague’s story was equally as interesting. She was from the Netherlands and on a holiday on Capri a long time ago had met a Caprese man. She married him and never left.
Use public transportation. Get on the bus, the metro, or train. It may be crowded or the conditions might not be that great, but you can find something out about people living in a country. I once had to take the bus, rather than the Circumvesuviana metro rail, from Napoli to Pompeii. My Italian was not that great so I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to be on the bus, but one older man had said that he would tell me where to get off (I thought). I was suddenly the last person on the bus, so I became nervous, but I waited. The stop he made me wait for was perfect; it was at the other end of the park, where fewer tourists entered.
Walk. When people ask me what to do in Rome, I don’t like to give them a list. For the most part, if you have never been, it’s obvious-you do what all tourists go there to do. But it’s also good just to get a little lost, and maybe literally follow your nose. Getting lost is not so easy to do today. Almost nowhere is off google maps any longer (even remote parts of Indonesia), but sometimes you will discover something, like a great pizzeria where locals hang out. My parents once found such a spot. They cannot remember why they ended up in Piazza San Marco in Florence, but they never forgot the pizzeria.
Get your money’s worth from your taxi driver. I try to get as much as I can out of taxi rides. Most drivers will talk about something (like the US presidential election). It’s especially easy in Italy. For me, a taxi ride in Italy can be at the very least a 15-minute lesson in Italian. Some drivers speak English very well and persist until they realize that I can understand more than a little bit of Italian. Then they start to talk to me like another Italian (I am not that good). A taxi driver once asked me how long I would be staying (it was Florence) and when I said a couple of days, he predicted how many kilos I would gain. That’s pretty friendly.
The most relevant topic of conversation was over a mutual appreciation of chocolate and gelato. While we were traveling at about 10,000 km/hr, the driver, Marcello, used both of his hands (just to be clear-at the same time) to passionately describe his favorite gelateria in Rome. If I survived the ride, I thought, it might be a good place to try.
Or any kind of driver. Private drivers in general are a good source of information, if you can afford one. It’s not exactly a local experience, but you can get a lot of information from a person in the tourist business that you would not ordinarily get on a big tour bus. Our driver Pasquale from Sorrento to Napoli Centrale gave us the break down on how to say good-bye in Italian. You can literally translate arrivaderci as perhaps until we arrive again. But then he gave us more possibilities. He ended up telling me how to say good-bye to someone I never want to see again. I think the literal translation is more polite from Italian, but it’s still not polite to say.
Take advantage of that close to your neighbor table thing. We have adopted so many Italian ways of doing things and yet, we are still not that comfortable with sharing a restaurant table with strangers. I have seen it work for a restaurant once in the USA (San Francisco). The great thing about Italian restaurants is that the tables are so close (or you actually share one) you are virtually forced to talk to the person sitting next to you whether you know him or her or not. Or you are at least forced to look at what they are eating. Some restaurants might even have a long table just for single diners. I met an interesting Italian TV journalist once this way in Milano.
On my first night in Florence on this most recent trip, we went to a restaurant with tables so positioned, and we found ourselves next to an older woman eating alone. She began to speak to us. She did not speak English, but we managed. Yes, it’s an old restaurant, and then she began to talk about how Florence had changed and that most of the beautiful old shops had disappeared. And then she told us that she comes every couple of days because she was alone as both her husband and her son had passed many years ago.
Make friends with people who are locals. If you go to the same place for years in a row (some of us do that), you can make this happen. I have made friends on a day hike in Liguria and after a few days in Raja Ampat. There isn’t anything my mother could possibly need to shop for any longer in Florence, but now she needs to go there to visit the friends she has made throughout the years. One of the people she visits, is a woman who owns and runs a local leather goods store. Widowed at a young age, she continued to run her and her husband’s shop while raising four boys. We have to go to Florence when we are in Italy just to see Anna, her son, and her daughters-in-law. Such people will really guide you to a locals’ only restaurant, most likely on the Piazza Pitti side of the Ponte Vecchio.
It is easier to travel to most places today, but that makes it more difficult to be many places today, especially big cities. However, dive sites even in remote parts of Indonesia are not so remote any longer. Your experience depends a lot on the local culture and how willing you are to participate. I have never been as brave as the woman from the Netherlands whom I met on Capri, but I sure dream about it.
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com