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Posts tagged ‘experiences’

Living Locally | Relax and Enjoy

I have talked about four of the five steps to my Living Locally philosophy so far:   putting yourself in their shoes , making the first attempt at communication , blending in and keeping an open mind.  Now for the final and most important!

STEP FIVE:  Relax and enjoy

You will have already created the time to experience encounters that you have been dreaming of because of good preparation and smart traveling choices.  This will not be the perfect trip because traveling (especially in Italy) is never completely predictable, but this will be the absolutely most amazing adventure.  Remember to roll with the punches and always be on the look out for an opportunity to get to know Italy personally.  A rainy day may mean a missed bike ride but instead a glorious little cafe otherwise overlooked.  Travel, like life, is full of ups and downs.  The trick is to be prepared for the worst while enjoying whatever is thrown your way.  Traveling is fun, but Living Locally is pure joy.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Living Locally | Keep an open mind

I am continuing on with step four of my Living Locally philosophy.   I have covered three of my five steps to more meaningful travel so that you can have more than just a great trip this year.  This is Living Locally.   The first three steps were about putting yourself in their shoes , making the first attempt at communication and blending in.

STEP FOUR:  Forget what you’ve known to be true and keep an open mind

It’s a big world out there, and nobody does it exactly like we do.  While I’m not asking you to pretend you aren’t American and aren’t a tourist, I’m simply suggesting that you leave your expectations behind and don’t compare things to how we would have done it back home.  I have learned that there is always more than one way to get something done.   You never know, you might actually discover something you like better.  I have learned that pasta anyway other than al dente is a crime and the last time I used Ranch dressing on my salad is a very distant memory.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Living Locally | Try To Blend In

For those of you who missed my previous posts, I am taking some time to explain each of my five steps to more meaningful travel so that you can have more than just a great trip this year.  I call this Living Locally.   The first two steps were about putting yourself in their shoes and making the first attempt at communication.

STEP THREE:  Try to Blend In

Osteria dell'AquachetteWatch the locals and by all means copy them!  See a crowd hanging out somewhere?  Go check it out.  Sometimes I feel like a private investigator as I try to figure out where they hang out, where and what they eat or why they do what they do.  Forget trying to explain “double-tall-non-fat-sugar-free-half-caf-vanilla-latte” and belly up to the bar for whatever they are having.  I learned how to appreciate my caffe by studying those around me.  Never go to a restaurant full of tourists with billboards in English screaming ‘we take credit cards.’  Instead, walk around and explore the narrow streets until you find a place packed with locals.  Handwritten menus tacked to the door are the best but be prepared to pay in cash.  Ask your host or the lady at the market where they ate last NOT where they think you should go.  When all else fails, follow your nose.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Living Locally | Make the first attempt at communication

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to watch other travelers as they interacted with locals and responded to their new environment.  I have witnessed some wonderful encounters but I have also had the unfortunate chance to see some horrific examples of “ugly Americanism.”

For those of you who missed my first post, I am taking some time to explain each of my five steps to more meaning travel so that you can have more than just a great trip this year.  I call this Living Locally.

STEP TWO:  Make the first attempt at communication.

tuscany

No translation needed.

I do not speak any other languages fluently, but I learn to say a few simple and polite phrases in the language of any country I visit.  Always ask the person if they speak English…in their language.  Nothing screams “I don’t care about you” like a tourist rattling on in English on the assumption that the listener understands.  While most foreigners do have at least some understanding of English, everyone appreciates even a simple effort on your part.  You will also find that people are more likely to go out of their way to help if you have tried to communicate on their terms first.  I have witnessed someone pretending they didn’t understand what was being said, only to later speak effortlessly with me.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Living Locally | Five steps to more meaningful travel

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to watch other travelers as they interacted with locals and responded to their new environment.  I have witnessed some wonderful encounters but I have also had the unfortunate chance to see some horrific examples of “ugly Americanism.”

Travel is a unique experience in that it is a two way street.  The tourist is obviously there to take in and receive all that the foreign land and its people have to offer.  While seeing sites and discovering far away places is exciting, it is only the first part of the journey.  What so many do not understand, and therefore completely miss out on, is the gift of reciprocation.  Most travelers are there to receive, worried mostly about what they are “getting” out of the trip.  I say that true traveling begins when the visitors find themselves concerned about what they have brought into each interaction, when they begin to wonder what else they can give to each situation.  As traveling shifts from a one-way express lane to a two lane gravel road, opportunities begin to appear that would have otherwise been missed in a cloud of self absorption.  The traveler becomes less of a strange and forgettable tourist and more of a temporary part of the community.  I call this Living Locally.

Living Locally is actually quite easy and very addictive, you just have to take a breath and jump in.  Before long you will find yourself shaking your head in dismay at the other tourists, wondering why they have not learned to blend in and become a part of their surroundings like you have.

I will spend the next few days explaining each of my five steps to more meaning travel so that you can have more than just a great trip this year.  You can have a once in a lifetime experience.

STEP ONE:  Put yourself in their shoes.

sant angelo wine barWhen you begin to try and trade places with the locals, you see things in a new light.  Things would be ideal if everywhere you went in Italy, people were pleasant and easy going.  But this is the real world and in that world even the nicest people have a bad day.  I try to look at the big picture, step back and see the world from the other person’s eyes.  Once I do that, a crabby waiter suddenly becomes a harried worker trying to please patrons from around the world.  Patrons who all speak different languages and many of them without any attempt at Italian.  I don’t know about you, but I think I would last about 10 minutes before losing my cool.

Train Tips and Manners for Your Trip to Italy

Train travel is a very easy and low stress way to get around Italy but can initially be overwhelming.  Once you get the system down you can relax and enjoy the scenery passing by without worrying about where you are going.  Trains are what most Italians use for transportation, so you get a real feeling of being with the people.  Connections are usually frequent and to all the large cities.  These tips should help you ease into train life and after a few connections you will feel like an old pro.

READING THE SCHEDULE

Intermediate stops are shown on this typical posted schedule in the middle column

This is probably the most intimidating of all.  The train schedule is posted at every station, usually on the wall.  Just like in the airport, there is an arriving and departing schedule.  You are looking for the yellow one that says ‘Partenze.’  When looking for your connection, you must know which major city the train is heading to.  For example:  if your destination is Orvieto, you must first find Firenze (Florence).  Under that main connection, each stop that train makes is listed including Orvieto.  It’s hard to believe that a worn piece of paper posted on the wall is actually telling the truth, but it is.  Many times I’ve chickened out and double checked at the ticket booth, only to receive the same information.  Train schedules are listed in military time, so a train leaving at 5pm would say 1700.  You will also need to know the Italian names for the cities you will be traveling to.

Each station will have several platforms or ‘binario.’  The posted schedule will have a binario assigned in the last column but this can change.  At every station there will be either a TV monitor or electronic sign stating which train is about to depart from which binario.  Also, in front (or at the side) of each individual track there will be a sign with the destination posted for that particular train.  When in doubt, ask a railway official (they will be in green suits) or the closest Italian.  Keep an eye on the reader board as I have missed trains because the track (binario) was changed at the last minute.  Announcements will be made prior to the trains arrival and most of the time it is repeated in English.

FINDING A SEAT

Once you find the correct binario or track and your train, you will need to make sure that you get on the right car.  Cars are divided by first and second class.  The first few cars will have a big number 1 by the door which designates them as first class, followed by cars marked with a 2 for second class.  I always travel 2nd class because there is little difference between the two except the price.  Each car will also have a number and the seats inside that car will be numbered.  This only matters when you have purchased a ticket that requires a reservation, similar to an airplane.  Connections between Florence and Venice for example are reserved seating.  Just look at your ticket.  If you have a car number ‘carozza’ and seat number listed then that is where you must sit.  Otherwise it is first come first serve and can get a little crazy.  If you hit rush hour, you may have a hard time finding a seat.  My trick…walk to the end of the train, hop on and move forward to find a seat.  Many times the first few cars will be packed while the last few are wide open because everyone has tried to get on the train at the front of the station.  Don’t panic if you can’t find a seat or find ones together.  Places will open up as people get off at their stops, just keep your eyes open.

Ladies, the choice is yours. Photo courtesy of PhotoBomb.com

Ladies:  You can’t pick who is in your family, but you can choose who you sit by.  If you are traveling alone, find a seat next to a nun or cute old lady, otherwise you may find yourself sharing a seat with a dirty old man.  NEVER pick an empty compartment or row of seats.  It is always better to choose your seat mates than have them choose you.

If you are getting nervous that the train will leave without you, you can always hop on and move through the cars from inside.  The train can’t physically leave while a car door is open, so you won’t have to worry about leaving a travel companion on the platform.  Rarely a smaller train will require a ‘reservation’ that wasn’t listed.  Don’t worry, they won’t kick you off.  Just smile and play dumb, they will just ask you to pay the difference on the spot and can even take credit cards.  Large luggage will not always fit above or under your seat and must be stored near the front of the car (storage space and racks are normally provided).  I have never had a problem with theft, but I do make sure I keep my eye on the suitcase at all stops and keep any valuables with me in my day pack.  If you are traveling in Southern Italy or on a night train keep your bags with you at all times and when you are ready to sleep attach a strap from your luggage to the rack.  Italian thieves do not want to work too hard and this is just enough to encourage them to move on.

TICKETS

You can find fast ticket machines throughout the stations.

You can buy your tickets several ways.  Tickets can be purchased at the station at any time; you do not have to wait until the day you are ready to travel.  At the large stations, the lines can be irritatingly long so plan ahead.  A time saver would be to buy all your tickets at one stop from a local travel agent or to purchase them at a smaller station or during less busy times.  Write down the connections and dates that you need on a piece of paper to hand to the person; this makes the process much easier.  Most stations also have automated ticket machines, which work like an ATM.  You scroll through a long list until you find your destination.  This is a simple, easy and quick way to get your tickets yet they stand alone almost unused by most Italians.  Don’t be afraid, they work well but Italians just don’t trust them because they are electronic.  When asked ‘Fidelity Card?’ you must say no.

Don’t forget to validate your tickets before boarding,

Your ticket must be validated before you board.  There are yellow boxes posted all around the station, simply put your ticket in all the way to receive the time and date stamp.  If you forget, you run the risk of high penalties from the train conductors who are not always the happiest people on earth.

Each ticket will include the following: Treno (train #) Carrozza (car #) Posti (seat #)

TRAIN TRICKS AND MANNERS

Trains in Italy are not as timely as in other areas of Europe.  I find that the later in the day you get, the later the train.  If you want to be somewhere, try to get the earliest train that you can handle.  Strikes are also very common throughout Italy; the only nice thing about them is that they are planned ahead of time so you can too.  Strikes only last one day at a time and not over holidays or in August.

Opening the train door may sound simple but not always easy to do.  Most trains have a button on the side which will open the doors, similar to an elevator button.  This is the same when walking inside the train between the cars.  Older trains tend to have handles or levers.  Try rocking the handle clockwise (or counter clockwise if that didn’t work) or rotating it up and down.

The toilets empty out on the tracks and it is considered impolite to use the restroom while at a station or stop.  I know because I was an offender.

Most trains have a snack car where you can purchase over priced sodas, beer/wine or snacks.  I prefer to pack a lunch from the local market and eat that on the train.  This is very acceptable and a fun way to get to know the people you are traveling with.

NOT MISSING YOUR STOP

Each stop has several signs with the name marked in white on a large blue background and you are given enough time to grab your things and exit.  Watch for towns along the way that are before your stop so that you are ready to go just in case.  The schedule at the station will have the approximate arrival time at each stop which gives you an idea of when to be ready.

If you are getting off in a major city like Rome or Florence, make sure you don’t leave the train too early.  Most of the major hubs have stations that are dead ends and hard to miss.  If for some reason you exited too soon just grab the next train coming through.

Understanding Italian Culture | Manners, Bella Figura, Siesta and Passeggiata

Part of enjoying Italy comes from understanding and embracing the differences in our culture.  I have tried to put together my impressions from an outsider’s perspective to help you really enjoy your experience.

I find that Italians are one of the most welcoming group of people around and they will try their hardest to help you and communicate with you.  Following my living locally guide will make you stand out from the demanding and draining tourists and open up so many doors for you.  I have been personally escorted to a restaurant more than once, given extra scoops of gelato to make sure that I didn’t miss out on the ‘perfect combination’ and even had mini impromptu historical lessons.  As a general rule, the people are very intense and very dramatic.  You will see heated conversations end in warm embraces.  They live life in the moment and with zest.  I always get swept up in living and loving life when I’m there.

THE BELLA FIGURA

Italians believe in presenting themselves well; taking care of the way you look is a priority for them.  This concept is called the Bella Figura, but it goes even deeper than just how you look.  For example, an Italian would rather miss the bus and be late to an engagement than become disorderly and sweaty by rushing madly to try to make it on time.  Once at the beach, I noticed I was the only mom playing in the sand and getting just as dirty as their child.  All around me, Italian women lay pristinely on their clean blankets.  You will notice that even the most simple of Italians will have at least one nice suit which they take pride in wearing each day.

The women.  What can I say here?  Now matter how good I think I might look, I pale in comparison to them.  They just exude sexy.  You will be hard pressed to find any one of them ever in sweats, even if they are just running to the store.  I try to bring one sassy outfit with me and play it up with a necklace or scarf as my feeble attempt to keep up.

MANNERS

Even the street performers are formally dressed.

Italians remain very formal.  Even in their language they have two separate tenses, one for those that are close friends and the other for everyone else.  While they would never expect you to be able to speak in the proper tense, I find that addressing the person initially with a Signore or Signora goes a long way.  I also always begin my requests and questions with a simple Per Favore (please).  Italians think that Americans are too brash because we tend to cut right to the chase without taking any time for small talk.  This is a great example of our fundamental differences.  We tend to operate on ‘time is money’ while Italians live completely in the present.  Just remember that you can never say please or thank you too much.

TIME

Again, a big difference between us is the concept of time.  It is considered completely acceptable to be late for an appointment.  I’m not talking 5-10 minutes late either.  This can be frustrating if their tardiness is affecting your trip, for example one time I spent 40 minutes waiting for the car rental office to open after lunch.  While I admit I was not excited, I spent that time enjoying not one but two gelati.  When you find yourself frustrated because you have to wait for someone, try to take a deep breath and find some sort of distraction.  Everything always ends up working out in Italy, just in its own time.

SIESTA

Wouldn’t you love to be able to stop your work day to head home or to the local trattoria for a nice meal or reviving nap?  While many business have begun to adopt a more formal 9-3pm work schedule, the mid day siesta is still going strong.  This is the time during the middle of the day from about 1-4pm where everything shuts down.  I mean everything, villages look like ghost towns.  Take advantage of this routine and use the time to refresh and recharge yourself.  I will often grab goodies at the market earlier in the day and spend this time in a quiet spot with a view.  The most important thing to remember is to prepare ahead so you aren’t stranded.  Make sure you have already bought any necessities earlier that day and in small towns that your car has fuel.  Caffeine addicts need not worry; there is always a bar somewhere open for a shot of espresso.

PASSEGGIATA

Every evening before dinner, everywhere in Italy people turn out just to stroll around, check each other out and catch up on the latest news.  This is the Italian version of cruising.  You will find people of all ages out, from the littlest of tots to old ladies linked arm in arm.  I love this time of the day.  It’s when the tourist buses have left and the real Italy comes out.   So grab a gelato and enjoy!

Everyone out and about in Rome

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Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Toilet Basics

TOILETS

I could probably dedicate a whole book to my adventures with Italian bathrooms.  It could almost become a game of ‘How do you flush this toilet?’  I have listed the most common types you will find, but always be prepared for anything.

Chain Pull:  usually from the tank hanging just above the toilet, but can be off to the side

The One Button:  located on the top or one of the sides, comes in various sizes

The Double Button:  found on the wall next to the toilet, the small one is for little jobs and the big is for…well you get the idea

Foot Pedal Flush:  found anywhere on the floor, this can also be how you turn the sink water on

The Push Up:  a little lever hanging from the bottom of the overhanging tank

Bottomless Pit:  just stand over the hole and aim, no flushing required and thigh workout included

Take aim

Full Service:  a self cleaning and flushing toilet that takes care of everything once you’ve left

The Bucket:  a full bucket of water poured into the toilet, used for emergencies when the toilet paper tips are not followed

Don’t count on finding one of these anywhere.

Public restrooms can be hard to find in Italy.  Most are pay toilets, usually under 1 euro.  Sometimes you will be giving your money to an actual person, other times inserting it into a machine.  I find it is easier to march into a local bar acting like I own the place and go directly to the bathroom, usually located in the back or downstairs.  If you feel guilty, just order an espresso and use the bathroom afterwards.  Always take advantage of the restroom while dining.

TOILET PAPER

Italians are skimpy in this department for a few reasons.  The toilets and sewer systems simply can’t handle too much.  They also think it is silly and wasteful the way most Americans (my family included) use a mitt of TP each time.  Until my daughter was restrained, I had to use the above mentioned emergency flush to unplug several toilets.  Flush twice to avoid embarrassing situations.  The toilet paper itself leaves a bit to be desired, so don’t expect triple ply Charmin!  If you are near the end of the supply you may have to ask for more from your host.  I always carry a bit with me at all times in case the supply isn’t restocked right away and never use a public restroom without back up.  They seem to be out most of the time.

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Dining, Tips, Gelato and Coffee

DINING

In Italy, the food is an experience.  Lunches and dinners last at least two hours; you linger over your meal.  When you sit at a table, it is considered yours for the night.  A restaurant would be considered awful if it tried to turn tables like we do in the states.  The waiters are all ‘slow’ by American standards and they do not rush for anything (except keeping wine on the table for the locals).  Your waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it, to do so before is considered rude.  When you are ready to leave, simply catch their eye and say ‘Il conto’ for the bill or make a motion of writing something out on your palm.  Many restaurants have a ‘pane e coperto’ charge (bread and cover) of a few euros per person and/or ‘servizio incluso’ (tips) built into the bill.  You will find both of these on the bill with the ‘servizio incluso’ usually on the bottom.  If that is not included in your bill, round up by a few euros (or less than half of what you would do at home).  I know it feels wrong not to leave a big tip for a great meal, we Americans are notorious for over tipping while some Italians never do.  Rarely I have run into annoyed waiters who were expecting me to tip like a typical tourist, but that reaction is not at all normal.  Another time I tipped an excessive amount because I had drank an excessive amount , and the owners made sure I left with a bottle of wine on the house.   An example for a meal that cost 37.50 would be to round up to 40.  Try to always leave a cash tip on the table, even if you are paying with credit, otherwise your server may never see the money.

Dinner service usually begins around 7:00pm and lasts well into the night.  If you want to dine with tourists, be there when they open.  Linger until around 8:30 and you will dine with the Italians.  Food is served in courses, but you are not expected to order one of each.  For example, I often order my own pasta (primi) but share an anitpasti (appetizer) and secondi (meat or fish dish) with my friend.  Just remember that the food will be brought out in order and if you skipped a course you will spend that time watching others eat.  I find I never go wrong with the house wine but if you want to try a bottle, ask the waiter what would pair well with your meal.  While you can’t always trust the bill you can trust them with their food and wine recommendations!  I personally find that you can never go wrong with the daily specials.  Italians eat with the seasons and chefs pride themselves in finding the best and freshest ingredients.  I will often go with their suggestions as well.  Europeans love fizzy water, so if you don’t want bubbles you must ask for ‘acua naturale.’

A few dining tips to make you look more like a local:

Don’t use a spoon to twirl your pasta and NEVER cut the noodles with a knife.

If cheese or other toppings didn’t come with your dish then it was not meant to go with it.  It is considered insulting to add anything to a dish that the chef prepared as they pride themselves in knowing exactly what ingredients pare with each dish.

By all means, use your bread to sop up the extra sauce.  This is considered a great compliment to the chef.

End your meal with an espresso (you can request a decaf).

Take your time to enjoy the meal, each one is an adventure in itself!

I caution everyone to pace themselves or you will find yourself groaning in bed with an overfilled stomach.

COFFEE

It’s the only place on earth that is more crazy about coffee than Seattle.  For about one euro, you can get a teeny cup of pure heaven.  It’s probably the easiest thing to do in Italy.  Head right into any bar and ask for un caffe.  You might be asked to clarify that you want an espresso and not an American cup of coffee.  Just use your fingers to show a tiny cup and they will understand.  Watch the locals.  They pour in about as much sugar as coffee and sit stirring it for some magical amount of time, then sling back the liquid in one sip and out the door they go.  This is not a Starbucks society where you savor your espresso or even take it to go.  I also love my morning cappuccino (which I do take my time with) but only tourists drink them after 10am.  Some bars have you pay first and then take your slip to the counter while others do the opposite.  If you are unsure just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy.  It is a courtesy to leave a small coin to ‘hold the paper down’ for the server.  You will also pay more for your coffee if you sit down to drink it, about twice as much as the same cup enjoyed at the bar.  The cost can be well worth it if you’ve found a cozy little spot for people watching.  The bars usually have quick and easy snacks as well; panini’s are a favorite type of sandwich and great for on the go.

GELATO

Italian ice cream is another national addiction, and a personal one.  I challenge anyone to beat my consumption record:  6 double scoops in one day!  Just remember that not all gelato is created the same and if you aren’t careful you could end up disappointed.  Follow my advice below and you are sure to never go wrong.

There are a few important things to look for when choosing a gelateria.  Only places that make their gelato fresh each day on the premise are legally allowed to display the sign ‘fatta in casa.’  This is a good start but that is not all you want to watch for.  A long line is one of the best signs of great gelato.  If you see more Italians than tourists, even better.  Italians tend to avoid tourists at all costs but will stand shoulder to shoulder with them for a good scoop and you know that your gelato will be worth the wait.  If all looks well, step inside and make sure that the gelato is in metal containers and not plastic ones, this will confirm that the ice cream was made in smaller batches and of a better quality.  The final check is in the gelato itself.  If you notice tons of bright unnatural colors run away.  Banana will be your gold standard.  If it is gray you have found the perfect spot, if it is any shade of yellow don’t waste another second there.  Gelato should be made from fresh ingredients with the primary concern being taste not color.  Be wary of any shop that has a big area with table and chairs.  While we are used to this set up, in Italy gelato is meant to be consumed on the go and a gelateria trying to encourage you to stay is focused on tourists.

No day is complete without gelato and there is no reason to feel guilty.  Gelato’s fat content is at least a third less than our ice cream because it is made from milk and not fresh cream or butterfat.  Ordering gelato is similar to getting your coffee.  Most places have you buy your gelato ahead of time and the cashier will give you a ticket to take to the counter.  Take your time looking around while you decide, but for the server’s sanity make sure that you are ready with your order when it is your turn.  You will be ignored if you do not have a ticket.  If you are having trouble getting his attention just hold your ticket like a torch and push your way to the front.  Be exotic and try different combinations; everything is good.

GROCERIES AND MARKETS

You will be able to find little grocery shops in every town and even some larger more modern ones in the cities.  In the produce section there are a few different ways to handle the vegetables.  Sometimes the checker (or another employee) will select the produce for you, bag it and weigh it on the spot.  All you do is point to what you want.  More commonly, you will bag it yourself and then put your selection on a scale.  There will be about 100 different buttons with pictures of fruits and veggies.  Find yours and simply push, the weight and cost in Euros will be printed on a sticker you attach to the bag (make sure you aren’t LEANING on the scale when you push!).  Don’t forgot to wear the disposable plastic gloves, otherwise you will draw many disgusted looks from the local shoppers.

Every city, town and village has a market on a certain day and some are daily.  Go early to get the best choices and have the most fun with the pushy old ladies.  Markets aren’t limited to just produce; usually you will find trucks full of cheese and meats.  If you see someone selling Porchetta sandwiches get one!

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Happiness depends more on inward disposition

italy travel rome inspirational quotes

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

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