Lifestyle & Culture

Lale Boyd in Italy: For the authentic travel experience, ‘get yourself local Italian friends’

All photos by Lale Boyd for Dispatches Europe

Before the global COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of taking a two-week trip to Italy would have had few negative connotations. The only worries I may have had would be how I would ever be able to afford airfare or the extra kilos I would be gaining from all of those carbs.

Instead, in summer 2020, I was more worried how traveling could put me and others at risk of catching the terrible virus that has disrupted my life and everyone else’s. Still, I felt I was in a privileged enough position to take the risk and plan a two-week trip to visit my uni friends in Italy.

I could only do this because:

• I live in the Netherlands, where life has nearly returned to normal and infection rates are low

• Italy had reopened its borders to tourists within the Schengen Area (that’s me!) on 3 June

• I am a student with no job and free time over the summer

• Airfare had become criminally cheap. Not a universal situation, I know, but some of you may relate.

It took a few days of research and coordinating with friends to find some affordable flights, and I only dished out 100 euros round-trip between Eindhoven Airport and Rome Ciampino Airport (Ryanair is truly a blessing).

Inconsistent COVID-19 travel rules

Navigating the airports was a breeze, even with the new coronavirus measures. These included having to wear a mask at all times in both airports, keeping 1.5 meter distance, and at Ciampino, getting a temperature check upon arrival. What struck me as odd, though, was the lack of consistency when it came to enforcing those measures.

In Dutch and Italian airports, people are asked to keep distance and wear a mask, but when waiting in line to board, 1.5-meter distance was not enforced. I even found myself bumping shoulders with other passengers. On the plane to Rome, passengers were not distanced and every seat was filled. Drinks were served, and many people spent half the flight with their masks off while they snacked or drank.

So, do measures exist when flying? Yes. Are they perfect or even slightly consistent? Absolutely not. Do with this what you will.

Limited masstran options

Once I arrived at Ciampino, I had to find my way to my friend’s hometown near Naples, which was about as easy as rocket science. (Elon Musk, if you’re reading this, we are now mutuals).

Mobility without a car in Italy is limited, and I suspect coronavirus has not improved the situation. For example, there was one booth open at Ciampino airport to buy bus tickets to other cities, when there would be about 10 in normal circumstances. Many bus services were not allowed to resume business until 29 July. At the one remaining stand, you could buy a bus ticket to Ciampino train station, then take a train to Roma Termini. Whew.

Trains between Rome and other cities are very comfortable and equipped with outlets and A/C. Regional trains, however, are small, dated and can’t seem to move more than a few kilometers without stopping for no clear reason. As someone used to advanced Dutch train infrastructure, this was frustrating. Though, if you ask any Italian, they’ll just shrug and tell you it’s normal and that you’re naïve for expecting any train or bus to actually be on time.

That doesn’t mean they’re always late – sometimes they’ll arrive and leave early, too. Which is just … so fun. This doesn’t make travel with public transport impossible; it just requires extra planning and awareness, such as buying train tickets days in advance (limited numbers allowed on trains=selling out quickly) and getting to stations or bus stops early.

Todi, a hilltop town north of Rome … one tourists rarely see

My lessons learned

Travel became much easier once I reunited with friends, thanks to wonderful, glorious cars. It’s rare for young people in Italy to not have a driver’s license, especially if they’re living in small towns. If they can’t drive, their friends and family can, so bikes and public busses are not well-loved. For all my non-driving brethren, this should be your motivation for making Italian friends: you will save so much time and money by having friends with cars, and you’ll be able to see and do so much more. Late night trips to and from nearby towns were a highlight of my time there. Friends with cars also allow you to visit towns the tourists never reach.

And now, a list of anecdotes and tips from my trip:

• Most people don’t see pandemic travel as ideal, but if you’re willing to take the risk, you’ll get to see cities like an empty Rome with hardly any tourist in sight. Case in point: The Spanish Steps with exactly one tourist on them.

• In my experience, Italians with fair English skills are not confident speaking it and will sometimes avoid conversations with you. Italians fluent in English will speak with you a lot. But Italians who know very little English will speak to you constantly with the few words they know, and they’ll find endless joy in your trying to speak broken Italian back to them.

• To elaborate on my point about train and bus schedules: when in Rome, my friend would take me to the nearest bus stop as fast as possible, then sit and wait. I noticed most bus stop signs had no schedule, just that it runs from 6 a.m. to midnight. When I asked when it was coming, she would say “Well, it’s supposed to come in 20 minutes, but I bet it will be here in 10.” And so it was, every single time.

• Upon arrival to Roma Termini from Ciampino airport, I had to buy a train ticket to a small town near Naples. Although all 15 ticket machines in my part of the station were on, only one actually worked. People would look at the line for the one machine, point inquisitively at a free machine, and everyone in line would just shake their heads somberly. Then we would welcome a new member to our line. Learn from my mistake and buy your ticket online.

Seat belts are not a thing. When I buckled up in a friend’s car, she looked at me, laughed, and said “You are the first person to ever put a seat belt on in my car!” Other times, I reached for a seat belt that did not even exist. To properly enjoy this cultural phenomenon, please suspend your fear of death for the duration of your time in Italy.

• If you are relying on your Italian friends to guide you around, do not expect them to tell you what the plan is … ever. You will blindly follow them and you will like it. Let every day’s activities be a pleasant surprise, because Italians do spontaneity like no one else.

• While I was staying in a small town near Naples, I learned the importance of going out at night. In all the areas I visited, there is a designated square where every young adult worth their salt is sitting together, talking and drinking. This isn’t a planned event (nothing ever is), so you simply go to see who will show up. This is how you meet the maximum number of people in the minimum amount of time. I honestly can’t count the number of cheeks I kissed.

Italians get pretty creative when it comes to spending time with friends. For example, a friend took me to a nearby town because a group of musical friends had a spontaneous jam-session in the town square. They played a bunch of popular Italian songs so everyone could sing along. While I was in Rome, I had a sunset picnic on a rooftop overlooking the whole city. That was a few days before we went to see an outdoor black-and-white movie in the center of Rome.

So, again: GET YOURSELF LOCAL ITALIAN FRIENDS.

About the author:

Lale Boyd is American but was born when her family lived in Turkey. She grew up in the U.S. military community in Baumholder, Germany attending Department of Defense Dependent Schools.

She’s traveled to at least 14 countries in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.

Her family returned to their native Kentucky in 2007 when she was seven, which was the first time she’d live in the United States. Lale has lived in the Netherlands since 2016.

Read more by (and about) Lale here.

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