After two weeks in Italy, we returned to Maine relaxed, refreshed and full of pasta. We were hankering for a burger and beer, so we stopped at the Sea Dog in Topsham, where I was astonished by the huge rush of water passing by the tavern which sits on the bank of the Androscoggin River. Apparently, you had a lot of rain while we were gone.
Lin and I have always enjoyed traveling, but since we started writing a travel column for this newspaper, we take more interest in the tourism industry wherever we visit. And those visits help put Maine’s troubles and tribulations in perspective.
The Italian economy is still in recession. Twenty percent of Italian workers are unemployed. Much of the country’s tourism industry depends on visits from other European countries, and those people are not coming because they are in recession, too.
Global economic problems affect many businesses in Italy. Our favorite winery there will ship only 50,000 bottles this year compared to its capacity of 180,000 bottles. Many of those bottles will be shipped to the United States, so the faster our economy picks up, the better for Italy and the world.
Still, Italy does tourism right. Many of its farms are now agritourismos, offering rooms and apartments. These are wonderful places, inexpensive, in beautiful locations, with very friendly helpful hosts. We stay at agritourismos almost exclusively now.
We love “our apartment” Girosol (“facing the sun”) at Il Santo, a small family winery on a hill above our favorite village of Greve, 45 minutes south of Florence. It’s a market town full of small shops and restaurants. Our hillside location is quiet, with stunning views and just a 10-minute walk from the village square. The square is anchored by the Church of Santa Croce, where we enjoyed a beautiful Easter Sunday service on our very first visit here in 2006.
Il Santo offers just three apartments. Ours has a large downstairs kitchen, a large upstairs bedroom, and a full bath. The view from our kitchen table is stunning. The apartment rents for less than a Portland hotel. Il Santo’s wine and olive oil is superb.
Families are the binding institution in Italy. Three generations live at Il Santo, with the elders taking care of the children. Perhaps there is a message there for us.
Lest you think Maine politics is chaotic, Italians get a new government almost every year! While we were there, a recent prime minister was convicted of multiple transgressions and sentenced to seven years in prison. OK, perhaps there’s a message for Maine here, too!
Despite the country’s economic and political woes, Italians are remarkably upbeat and friendly. In the villages, everyone walks and greets you with a smile and an enthusiastic “Buon journo” in the morning or “Buono serra” in the afternoon.
Many people speak at least a bit of English, but we try to use as much of our limited Italian as possible. My Maine accent and mispronunciations usually bring a smile, but they do seem to appreciate the effort to speak their language.
We love their “slow living.” For three hours every afternoon, the country shuts down for rest and relaxation. Nap time! Meals are not eaten, they are celebrated, and we joined the celebration! Our dinners sometimes consumed three or more hours.
So what did we bring home with us, besides wine and olive oil? Any lessons learned?
* Well, when your economy depends on tourism, everyone in the country must pitch in to make tourists feel welcomed. I couldn’t figure out how to use the self-service pump at the gas station. An Italian couple, noticing my problem, showed me how to do it and then pumped the gas for me.
* There’s real value in fresh food. Italians shop daily for food, focusing on fresh produce, pasta, meat and cheese. Mainers could do a lot more of this. It’s healthier and it keeps local farms healthy, too.
* The country seems well focused on its strengths, especially tourism, wine, olive oil and cheese. Product quality is protected and advertised.
* Small is good. Small shops are favored over big stores and supermarkets. We buy fresh pasta and sauces in one shop, meat and cheese in another, fruits and vegetables in a third. I wish we could shop like that in Maine!
* And yes, we found real value in slow living. So, in spite of the need to create this column and our travel column every week, we are going to try living a little more slowly in Maine.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or georgesmith firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.