What I Learned at the Italian Cafe Downtown
On a recent Saturday my mom and I found ourselves watching one of those European travel programs on PBS. Rick Steves was visiting coastal villages in Italy, eating at cafes and going on strolls through cobblestone streets. By the end of the program, I was one Expedia click away from buying a plane ticket to the Amalfi Coast.
My mom, on the other hand, said she had already taken a vacation to Italy by living vicariously through Rick Steves’ adventures.
“Not the same thing!” I yelled.
“I know, but I saved a lot of money and travel time by watching it on TV,” she said. “So for me, I’ve gone to Italy.”
Clearly, we have a difference in opinion about seeing a foreign city and experiencing one.
When I was 18 we took at vacation to New York City to celebrate my High School graduation. I enjoyed the morning we spent walking from our Times Square hotel to Central Park. Several streets were blocked off along the way for a food festival in one neighborhood. We stopped to take our pictures with police officers at the event. At the time, the NYPD were just characters on TV. Then suddenly they became real people with day jobs and assignments from their boss to man a food festival. I think they could tell I was nervous to approach them, so one jokingly put his hat on my head before my mom snapped a photo.
I created my own ‘Ghostbusters Tour’ in my head, too. I tried to visit every NYC spot I saw on the first movie – the haunted high-rise, the NYC public library and Tavern on the Green where the accountant Tulley confronted the demon dog. I know – I’m a dork.
My mom will tell you that she enjoyed the bus tour through the Financial District. This was early 2001, and I’m sure we drove past the twin towers, though all we would have seen were the street-level doors through the bus window. I’m not sure that I would have done this part of the trip any differently, though. It was pre-2008, pre-9-11 and the area wasn’t high on my interest list. (No Ghostbuster activity other than perhaps City Hall).
And still it makes me wonder: What is the best way to visit a city, or even better, to experience it? Should you take a tour, walk, bar hop, bike or just sit and absorb?
I know it helps to actually be physically at the place. It also helps to step away from the tourist spots. Perhaps, put yourself in the place of a local. I often ask: “If I lived here, what would I do each day, where would I eat, shop, attend church and relax?”
Right now, I’m sitting at an Italian street café in the very middle of Downtown Dallas having a sporadic conversation with the Naples-born owner. It’s finally nice weather to do this. People are coming and going, but we’re the only ones sitting here on the patio.
I ask him if he ever goes back to Naples. “Once a year,” he says. “Have you been?”
And no, of course I haven’t. Because despite all the debating with my mom, traveling abroad is not something I’ve accomplished yet.
“Why not?” he asked, like it’s the most normal thing in the world – going to Italy. “Haven’t you ever been to Europe?”
“Uh, no.” And I rattle off a number of excuses – the cost, no one to go with, time, the language barrier, and so on.
He rolls his eyes at each one. “Everyone speaks English there. Go alone – who cares?”
The truth is – and what I don’t say – is that I don’t have the courage to go. I’ve traveled alone to cities across the United States several times over the years - and thoroughly enjoyed it without any trepidation. Europe, on the other hand, seems daunting.
And maybe it’s another excuse, but I’m finally discovering and enjoying the city I was born in. If you told me a year ago that I would be writing from a café downtown I would have laughed.
Jean-Pierre, the café proprietor, is a better Dallas tour guide than me, though. A German couple from Munich has just stopped by for a coffee, and he is actually conversing with them in perfect German. He’s telling them all about the neighborhood, the best places to visit here and even the German history of Texas. I can understand that much of the conversation.
The Germans are lounging on the patio doing what Europeans apparently do best – drinking lots of coffee, smoking cigarettes and generally not giving a shit – all the while harried Dallasites rush past us with something urgent to get to.
I am honestly jealous of Jean-Pierre and the Germans and their totally ‘chill’ attitude. Could I ever do that in Italy? You know, take a siesta from “life”, not think about my self-employment or what I have to get back to. It’s a new personal challenge.
And I better wrap up before they notice I’m being a voyeur. ;-)