Despite anything you may have heard, it is not true that 200 million Americans are currently galloping up and down the boot of Italy. If you ask me, it looks more like 220 million.
The Yankees are back and then some, no doubt due in large part to a development headlined recently in the Rome Daily American: The exchange rate of lire for dollars had just hit an all-time high of 1,410 to $1. Unless there's a fast and steep fall, that certainly makes Italy sound alluring. And so it is -- except when it isn't.
Item: "But you like Italy?" asked a Belgian woman visitor. "That's strange. All the other Americans I've met say they don't like it, that it's too dirty."
There is something to that charge, of course. Bella Italia these days looks more and more like New Jersey, no knocks intended. It's just that "progress" has produced the same combination of beauty spots and eyesores in both places, the same urban decay and industrial sprawl that contrast so painfully with the glories of nature and, in Italy's case, the incredibly splendid monuments of earlier generations.
Item: For the visitor, there also seems to be considerable competition this fall for hotel and transportation space. To escape the crowds, I tried buying first-class rail tickets for travel around the country, only to wind up on three occasions standing in compartment corridors because first class was as full as second.
In Rome, Milan, Florence and Venice I also spoke to hoteliers who claimed to be booked solid through October. Mostly it appears to be business from "congresses" topped off by a heavier-than-usual influx of foreign tourists. For part of my visit to Venice, I actually stayed in Padua, a half-hour train ride away, and commuted.
If you can't get into any of the more atmospheric Venetian hotels (like the Pensione Accademia or the Hotel Flora if you're watching your budget, the Gritti or the Danieli if you're not), Padua is not a bad fallback position, since the same money gets you better quality.
Item: The antiquity of Italy is, of course, one of its strongest appeals to tourists, yet one all too often sees rot rather than noble rot, an excess of graffiti further defacing buildings already suffering from neglect and the normal wear and tear of age. The crowds of tourists also contribute their own long, thick trails of litter.
Item: "No one has time to enjoy any more," says a Venetian with more than a touch of frustration in his voice. "Here all they can think about is making money." He is not alone in this comment, and even the infrequent but repeat visitor can sense a more "businesslike" approach to daily life, less gaiety.
I even felt that money may have replaced sex as Topic A, although on occasion the lone woman does still need both hands and feet to fend off strangers who'd like to be more than friends. I tried telling one fast-moving train conductor that he was wasting his time because I was 55 years old and only liked women.
In the end I think 55 did the trick. He backed off. Italian men, I'd been told by a perceptive Italian woman, like to steer clear of anything or anyone "old." They think age may be catching.
Item: Even after the dollar went over the 1,400-lira mark, tourists who didn't know better or who didn't plan better were getting only 1,330. Exchange offices at the railroad stations and airports were taking a nice big five percent commission from people who didn't realize that banks in town are the places to go and that those banks close at 1 p.m.
Most of the banks I went to gave the same rate for either dollars or travelers checks. But there's a government tax on each travelers check transaction. Thus if you cash a small amount each day rather than one large sum, percentage-wise you can lose quite a bit.
It is, of course, that extra financial edge that's brought many of these same people to Italy. What money can buy is apparently pretty appealing. On one recent afternoon, there was actually a line of customers waiting to be admitted to the main Gucci store in Rome, and a few blocks away at Fendi (where they have all but cornered the market in belligerent, brittle sales clerks) one could see foreign customers purchasing three and four $100 to $200 handbags at a time.
While it's best to figure about $35 per person for lunch with a house wine at a few places such as Harry's Bar in Venice, it's possible to find equally-memorable meals for $20. If you just want to eat and not worship, trattorias abound where $7.50 will cover three courses, wine, taxes and service.
I had savory half-sandwiches (tramezzini) for as little as 30 cents each, though at delicatessens (gastronomicas), where they make roll and meat or cheese sandwiches (panini) to order, you're likely to pay 70 to 80 cents but get more filling and chewier bread.
Fresh strawberry ices (granita di fragola) cost about 75 cents, and at Rome's famous Tre Scalini "gelateria," you can have one of their renowned chocolate "truffle" ice creams at a table on the terrace for a little less than $2.50. At a wine bar (enoteca) in Padua, where I polished off a huge shrimp salad, a steak and a full bottle of wine, the bill came to roughly $16. Like tavola caldas and pizzerias, though, the growing number of wine bars are particularly useful when you're feeling overstuffed and want a one-course meal -- something the usual ristorante is not at all pleased to serve you.
A gondola ride in Venice is still expensive (about $30-$40, depending on the time of day and how well you negotiate), but the ferry from the Venice railway station to the Lido and back again (about a one-hour trip) is available for as little as 70 to 75 cents, and most bus fares in Rome are, at current rates, only about 15 cents.
The grand hotels still have grand prices attached (at the Gritti in Venice you're talking about $250 a night for most doubles), but there are easier ways to go. More-than-adequate "second class" hotels like the Manzoni in Milan are about $40 a night for two, though $50 is more the norm in Rome and Venice. That's also the going rate at the charming Continental in Florence.
I'm always surprised, though, that Italy -- the design capital of the world -- has many genuinely dreary hotels. I'm not crazy about some of their little economies either. At the Hotel Laurus in Florence, they actually turned off the air conditioning for lengthy periods both during the day and at night. Added to the street noise, it was almost enough to prompt a person to go out and buy a $5 bottle of scotch -- which, incidentally, costs nearly $8 at the duty-free airport shops in Rome.
In the end, being once again on the good end of the funny-money market is something you can learn to love. If you're not careful, you may even find yourself out pricing palazzos.