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Five Little Things I Loved in Italy

Today, I climbed Mt. Vesuvius. The perfect cap to a near-perfect vacation. Tomorrow night, I'll be back in my own bed with my cat and my husband, ready to continue planning my fall courses and working on my novel.

As my month in Italy comes to a close, I've been thinking a lot about my experience here. I've also been thinking about how to write about that experience--how to write about travel in general. In a blog, you dash out impressions, share the day's adventures, blather about whatever's on your mind. But what about after the dust has settled? What will I write about this trip a month from now, or a year?

I've been struck with the fact that what makes travel memorable isn't just the historic monuments, magnificent works of art, and spectacular scenery. It's also the little things--the sights and experiences that may not mean much to someone else but that resonate with you personally. Things that make you smile, giggle, sigh, or nudge your travel partner and say, "Get a load of that."

It's the small, personal, and off-beat that can take travel writing from run-of-the-mill "Here's What to Do in Florence" mode to something unique. Everyone loves the Cistine chapel, the Colisseum, and the ruins at Pompeii--and everyone who travels to Italy is going to write about them. Does it make any sense to add another voice to the cacaphony? Why not write something only you could write?

With those thoughts in mind, I've been taking note of some of the little things I loved about Italy--just things that caught my eye and a tiny portion of my heart. Here are five of them, in no particular order.

1.Oleanders. One of the few things I liked about growing up in the Central Valley of California was the oleanders: large blossomy bushes that adorn California Highway 99 and flourished in the backyard of the house I grew up in. I don't miss a lot about the Central Valley (brown in the summer, gray in the winter, nothing to do), but I do miss oleanders. Those Mediterranean shrubs don't grow in Minnesota, where I now live, and seeing them everywhere in Italy, with their big white, pink, and deep-rose flowers, was a delight.

Oleanders at Pompeii

2. Nectar of the Gods. This one is actually John's. He didn't know what he was ordering when he pointed to a bottle of brown, cola-like liquid at a snack-bar in Frosinone. It turned out to be the uniquely Italian soft drinkChinotto, named after a small orange-like citrus fruit. One sip, and he was hooked. For the rest of his stay, he ordered Chinotto in every snack-bar, cafe, and restaurant we stopped at. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available in the U.S., so unless someone starts to import it, he may have to wait for the day we return to Italy for his next Chinotto fix.

3.Venetian Blondes. I can't vouch for the accuracy of this story, but I loved it anyway. We were on a museum tour when our guide pointed out that all the people in one of the 16th-century paintings had blonde hair. The reason, he said, was that hair dye had just been invented. The story goes that the inventor started out using his own urine in his concoction (it had something to do with the ammonia), but when his would-be customers were too grossed out, he started collecting the urine of monks. He supposedly managed to convince his clientele that this was holy pee, and therefore couldn't possibly be disgusting. He is said to have gotten rich.

4.Broken Things. The Pantheon, the Cistine Chapel, and the Trevi Fountain may be astonishingly well preserved and magnificent, but I also thrilled to the broken fragments of ancient life scattered everywhere. The fractured columns lying on their sides. The tumbled-down remnants of once-grand buildings. The section of a 2,000-year old wall we sat on to eat our sandwiches at the ruins of Ostia.

The Ruins at Ostia

These shattered monuments make me think about the people who built them, how they must have imagined they would last forever. Zen monks sometimes meditate in graveyards to remind themselves that everything ends. The broken remnants of long-ago life are a similar reminder. Call it theOzymandias effect.

5. The Painted Guys. On the street corners around the Trevi Fountain sit men with their bodies painted entirely gray or entirely white. You can get your picture taken with them for a small price. Who are they? Why are they painted? Are they supposed to represent statues of stone? No one we asked knew, and we never found out. If any of you know what is up with the painted guys of Rome, your comments are welcome here.