First Impressions

Stereotyping has its dangers. There may be a grain of truth in a stereotype, but they are usually grossly exaggerated generalizations; broad labels we apply to cultures other than our own that we do not understand. The reputation Italian workers have for being slow and less than diligent about their business is one of those. Italians do things the Italian way, and at least in my opinion, it is a good way. They conduct business in a more relaxed manner than in many other societies, but I find it refreshing. When doing business with Italian companies I have had to learn how to loosen up and take people at their word. I have become more comfortable relying on a handshake instead of a contract. I no longer fear the sky is falling when I have not received a confirmation email from a hotel or bus company within a few days. I have seen time and again that in the end everything works out as planned. What we agreed on will get done. The Italians have always known that, and now I know it too. Italians know how to work as well as they know how to play. They just do it in a way that recognizes our human need to pace ourselves for the long haul and to try and enjoy the process, if at all possible. Italians are also stereotyped as happy people, and as a rule I would say that is true, but happy is not exactly the right word. They have a disposition and way of approaching life that focuses on enjoying the moment, whether at work or at play, and to shrug their shoulders and move on when necessary. They have a distinctive joie de vivre, so evident in their celebrations, their emphasis on the pleasures of eating, drinking, resting, and yes – working!

Italians love the sun and the sea. It is not surprising, considering the fact that Italy has over nine thousand kilometers of coastline and almost eighty percent of its population lives within one hundred kilometers of the sea; all this in a country approximately the size of Arizona. On weekends in season the highways between inland cities and the coast are jammed with cars full of sun worshippers headed for the beach. For many, the destination is not a wide expanse of white sand, but rather a tiny patch of rounded stones or a concrete breakwater at the mouth of a small harbor; anywhere large enough to roll out a mat and lie down in the sun. Of course, there are beach resorts that feature freshly raked sand with row upon row of lounges and umbrellas for rent, but Italians will happily make-do anywhere just to be near the water. Most of the beach resorts that are primarily devoted to vacationers are completely unlike other tourist meccas inland. They are where Italians go on their vacations and they are some of the places I enjoy the most. This is mainly because I like to be around Italians at play and there is nowhere they play better than when on vacation alla spiaggia – at the beach.

Our destination was San Benedetto del Tronto, on the Adriatic coast, in le Marche’ region. Barbara and I wanted to kick back and wind down on the beach for three or four days, to decompress a bit before returning to the states. We also wanted to do some reconnaissance. We thought the area might be a potential location for one of our group trips. We usually spend some time exploring on our own, either before after each Arts Sojourn, researching future group locations. We had never been to San Benedetto before. Prior to visiting a new town I always do as much research as I possibly can. I read guidebooks and search the internet for information about the town and its surroundings. I spend hours researching specific hotels, but we never know exactly what we will find until we get there. Our initial introduction to San Benedetto was not what I had been hoping for.

On our way we stopped for lunch in Ascoli Piceno; a beautifully preserved le Marche’ town off the tourist path. We arrived during the afternoon riposo and found one of those increasingly rare towns where the riposo is still taken seriously. The eerily empty streets could have come right out of a de Chirico painting. We scarcely encountered another soul as we wandered the town, which seemed miraculously spared from the ravages of time and plunder. The detail of Ascoli’s medieval and renaissance architecture is still remarkable.  A storm was threatening as we headed back to our rental car. A deluge began just outside of Ascoli and continued in full force all the way to San Benedetto.

Our first impression of San Benedetto was not good. We made our way to our hotel way out on the Lido, driving through flooded streets past block after block of faded modern hotels of every size, shape and description. Our mood was decidedly as damp as the weather. We had been to this type of beach town before so we pretty much knew what to expect. I remembered my first experience years earlier, pulling into Milano Marittima, a beach town further up the Adriatic coast near Ravenna, at the start of a three week stay. I was initially taken aback; my naïvely romantic vision of “historic” Italy, again was not in synch with reality. I sarcastically described Milano Marittima as “The Jersey shore in an Italian suit,” but I quickly grew to love it; not for its aesthetics or history, but for its unashamed present-day exuberance. We pulled up to our hotel in San Benedetto. I temporarily parked out front and dragged our bags in, getting soaked in the process. The hotel was of the “Grand” variety; a four star affair that was likely quite “Grand” in its day, but those grander days were long gone. The beaches were empty, but the lobby was full of loud children running everywhere; men reading newspapers on old overstuffed furniture, televisions blaring, and families playing cards and board games. I felt like we were boarding an eastern European train. Of course, since I had never been on an eastern European train this impression was about as valid as my initial belief that all of Italy was beautiful and every window had a geranium-filled flower box under it. After checking in we were given our room key and made our way to a stark and stuffy box with the most basic of old hotel furniture and no attempt at cheerful decoration. We raised the window blinds for a view of rain-soaked beaches and gray seas. The bathroom was a dark hovel of antiquated plumbing with a rocking bidet, and a constantly dripping pipe exiting the wall in our bathtub. We affectionately called it the stronza pipe as a nod to what we imagined could possibly be its mysterious cargo. Barbara and I had a serious discussion about checking out.

Our attitude changed the next morning as the sun dawned in full force and we took our places in one of the rows of lounges on the private beach across the street from the hotel. We slathered on sunscreen and brought out a stash of New Yorker magazines we had saved just for this purpose. These lounges, right next to those of a nonna and her grandchildren, were ours for the next four days. Everything was looking better and we quickly realized we could easily get used to this. We followed roughly the same pattern the Italians follow: breakfast and then beach, lunch and then riposo, followed by more beach and then a shower, dinner each night at the same table in the hotel dining room and then the evening passeggiata up and down the Lido. It is the same pattern, duplicated by the same families every year at the same time, in the same hotels; mothers, fathers, children and grandparents, along with the same returning hotel guests greeting each other anew every season. This pattern is repeated every summer in countless beachfront hotels all over Italy.

I have learned many valuable lessons on my travels in Italy. Some have helped me conduct business there and some have helped me in life. I have learned to give any new place time and not to allow a less than perfect first impression color the days to follow. Our visit to San Benedetto turned out to be a great pleasure; not a perfect pleasure, but one Barbara and I remember fondly and would gladly repeat. First impressions are inevitable. The problem occurs when we put too much stock in a first impression and allow it to close us off to future possibilities. Travelers size up a town and immediately decide they won’t like it, and so of course they never do. Their reaction has been fixed from the start. I’ve learned it’s best to withhold judgment when exploring new locations. I now do this as a matter of course. I try to remain open, to allow time for each unique location to unfold. Conversely, there are places, as well as people, that make great first impressions. They are immediately likeable. That is not a bad thing, but occasionally we discover what we initially found so appealing on the surface has little depth. More exposure does not deepen our appreciation of them. They will always be pleasant acquaintances, but never true friends.

In the summer of 2007 we learned another valuable lesson about the importance of first impressions. On a sunny and warm July Sunday, just before lunch, our minibus pulled into Portovenere, a beautiful coastal town just south of the Cinque Terre. We stopped to unload our bags in the modest piazza directly below our hotel (another “grand” one) as hundreds of other tourists arriving for the day swarmed around us in all directions like scurrying schools of anchovies. There were day trippers of every description crowding the restaurants and cafes. Every available inch of sand, concrete or stone along the waterfront had an Italian spread out on it. I noticed a vaguely disguised look of dismay on some of our traveling companions faces. It did not take me long to realize the mistake I had made as group leader. I had treated my fellow travelers to a first impression of Portovenere at its very worst. Barbara and I had stayed in Portovenere before. We knew the crowds would be much thinner and more manageable during the week. We also knew the day trippers would be gone in just a few hours and the town would be practically empty after dark, but our comrades had no idea. As it turned out, everyone in our group ended up loving Portovenere, but first they had to get beyond their initial impressions. We vowed we would never again introduce one of our groups to Portovenere on a Sunday in season: another travel lesson learned.

We have also learned the importance of not planning a travel itinerary too rigorously. Flexibility is the key if you want to get the most out of an Italian experience. We always take it slow. We never rush, so as not to miss the possible surprises that can be the best part of any trip to Italy.

Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.
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