Saturday, May 17, 2014

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 30

From Prince to Jesus in One Day

Well, hey, everyone!  Long time no talk!  Yes, I am still here in Switzerland, workin’ on Year Six of the Great Ex-Pat Adventure.  Where does the time go? 

Life keeps getting in the way of my blog.  I apologize.  I will catch you up in two paragraphs.  We are having the landscaping redone at the chalet and putting in a hot tub.  We have also begun researching and visiting chateaux with vineyards to buy for our retirement. (Well, Mr. Big’s retirement.  I retired six years ago and am not ashamed to admit that it beats the hell out of working).

We went to Abu Dhabi and Amsterdam earlier this year, and, while interesting, nothing happened that was amusing enough to be considered blog-worthy.

Small Son graduated from college and found a wonderful job.  He and his girlfriend and a cat live in a cute apartment in the mountains in North Carolina and all is well.  That is Kid Number Three off the meter and my work here is done, folks.  Charming Daughter lives with her boyfriend and, yes, another cat, in a chic townhouse in Atlanta and they are living the young, urban lifestyle dream. 
Domestic Son and his wife are busy trying to raise the next generation and are all caught up with Middle School Angst, Little League and Pampers.  They have no cat but, I believe, Grand Number Two has a few goldfish.  Nutshell.  Boom.

So, life was just moving along at a steady clip and I was not really focusing on this blog when, suddenly, I slept with a prince and that changed everything.

Last month, I was trying to find somewhere to go “off the beaten path” for the Easter holidays.  There’s a region in Italy called Puglia which is way down in the heel of the boot that is not yet overrun by tourists and still retains its’ authentic, rustic, (sometimes gritty), charm.    I was under the impression that the Brits had discovered this area but not yet the Chinese nor the Americans.  (Wrong.)

Anyway, the closest airport is in Brindisi (which you will probably have never heard of) and our flight wasn’t due to land until 10:30 p.m. so I went on booking.comto find a hotel CLOSE to Brindisi but not actually IN Brindisi.  Brindisi was supposed to be gross and avoided at all costs, especially at 10:30 at night.  I found what looked like a hotel on the website, (please note the phrase “LOOKED like a hotel”), in a village called San Vito dei Normanni only eight miles or so away from the airport.

Cool!, I’m thinking.  The hotel is an actual castle from the 11th century!  Wow!  We will stay there for two nights before we move onto the gnome house!  (“gnome house” will be explained later).  I booked my two nights in the Castello Dentice di Frasso.  Here is the link and you tell me that this does not look like a legit hotel: Legit Hotel?

Of course, our flight from Rome was delayed, (Air Italia is run just like the rest of Italia, which is to say not very punctually), so we figured out that we were going to be pulling on in to the castle around 11:30-ish instead of 10:30.  Being kind of Swiss now, we thought we would call ahead from the Rome airport to let the hotel know that A) we were going to be late (which is a criminal offense in Switzerland) and B) we were therefore going to need somebody to stay up late to meet us at reception.

This is the point where the vacation started to become blog-worthy.  When Mr.  Big called the hotel from the Rome airport, I knew immediately something was wrong because his face started to sweat.  And he started talking in baby-talk.  Like “we no be there on time.  We late.  Plane is late.  Midnight.”  And then he just shoved the phone at me like he thought I had magically learned to speak Italian in the last hour or something.  But, because I have been married to this man since the Stone Age, I knew that this was his way of saying, “Here, Trailing Spouse.  You speak to this hotel person who speaks no English. You are responsible for this nightmare and let the record show that I wanted to go to Vegas.”

Luckily, Italian and French are very, very close, so when the nice man on the other end of the phone told me that his spoken English sucked but that he could read and write much better so please text instead (because, undoubtedly, he would be using Google Translate on the other end), I understood him perfectly and once again Mr. Big and I were in good shape and on our way.  Signore Hotel Guy told me to text him once we had arrived in San Vito dei Normanni and he would open the gates to the castle, which I did.  And there he was waiting for us and he directed us to park inside the castle walls and up we went into the castle at 12:15 in the morning.

Please remember that, at that point, Mr. Big and I were still thinking we were at a hotel and that this man was a hotel employee of some kind.  He woke up his wife whom he said spoke “molto bene Inglese”, (um, no and whomever told you that was lying,) and they gave us the nickel tour of the outer rooms and then showed us to our bedroom.  And here, only here, is where I began to start to think that something might be a little “off”.

It was not a bedroom.  It was an apartment.  The balcony alone was bigger than my apartment in Lausanne.  It was furnished with BEAUTIFUL antiques.  I mean real antiques.  The pair of mirrors over the dressers was nothing you would ever consider putting in a hotel.  Ever.  In the dressing room, the bathroom scale was an antique upright model like what you’d find in your doctor’s office.  There was a porcelain hook in the bathroom from which was hanging a long shoehorn for riding boots carved out of bone.  In a REAL hotel room, that sucker would’ve been stolen in less time that it took for me to write this sentence.  I was thinking, “Oh, Mr. Big, I fear that something has gone wrong here in my interpretation of the very innocent entry.  Very wrong.”

Having established the night before that we would “like to dine” in the breakfast room at around 9:00   There was a maid waiting to greet us who walked us through the library and into the breakfast room.  The table, (the ONE table), which could easily seat 8 was set for, you guessed it, two.  Me and Mr. Big.  “Must be the slow season,” I remember thinking.  At that point, the wife from the night before made an appearance and she went on and on about “HER” lemon and orange marmalades from “HER” garden and “please to try—they aredelicioso”.   We finished breakfast with the maid hovering eerily in the corner the whole time ready to fulfill our slightest desire.  Most awkward breakfast ever. 
a.m., we emerged from our room for said meal at 8:59, because we are so very, very Swiss.

The midnight tour the night before hadn’t satiated my natural curiosity about the Castello.  I had brought my camera to breakfast fully planning on touring the whole “hotel” after finishing our meal.  I was adjusting the focus on the incredible ceiling in the Men’s Smoking Room when I got a prickle on the back of my neck.  Not only had the maid followed us into the “Fumoire”, but Signore Hotel Guy was also standing in the doorway.  Since it was a little early for port and cigars, I figured that they wanted something else.  Probably for me to stop taking pictures.

Me:  Buon giorno, signore!  Everything is so lovely here!   Is it OK if I take some pictures inside the hotel?

Signore:  (In broken English, remember, he only texts), Uh, no, please.  Is not hotel.  Is my home.  (Pointing to oil painting above doorway)  Is my grandfather.

Me:  (Pointing to lady who made the jam who was hovering behind the maid)  Aha!  And she is your Prinicipessa, no?

Signore who is now Principe:  Si!  Si!  (Much beaming and head nodding that we had now got THAT straightened out).

It didn’t, however, answer the question of how his castle found its’ way to me via the internet.  So, over the course of the next two days I became pals with the Prince, (because I am extremely nosy),  and it turns out that he and his wife are the only people in all of Italy who still own and live in their original family castle and no other family or entity has ever owned it.  (I don’t know if I believe this because Italy is a big place, but the Prince was quite proud of this fact and so I cut him a break and didn’t express my extreme skepticism). 

We had drinks with the Dentices.  (This is pronounced don-tuh-sees.  Their  whole last name is don-tuh-see-dee-frasso, which rhymes with El Paso.)  We had snacks.  We borrowed a corkscrew.  We met the twin heirs to the throne (age 9) who would not speak to us even though their mother was yelling at them in Italian that this was a perfect opportunity to practice their English.  We toured the gardens.  We inspected the original family tree over the fireplace.  He pointed out his great grandmother whose sister was married to the Archduke Ferdinand who was killed and brought about WW One.  (He was proud of this!)  He showed me the portraits of his aunt and uncle who had the NERVE to SELL their castle in the next village.  (He was absolutely appalled by this.)

In short, we bonded and I felt comfortable enough to ask him before we left what on God’s green earth he was thinking billing his castle as a hotel on

Principe:  Ah, Signora.  Is for future, no?  We want to have many, many rooms here.  In future.   In basement.  We want swimming pool.  We have many, many plans.  For future.  But village, they tella me no, no, no.  No turna castello into hotela.  Is forbidden.  Alora, for now is just one room.  But you lika the room, yes? You write on internet how mucha you lika room, yes?

Yes, Prince.  I like your style.  You are planning ahead.  I will go one better.  I will write on a blog for all the world to see how cool it was to chill with you.  I will even tell the people that this is the only “hotel” I’ve ever stayed in in Italy that had an outlet in the bathroom for my flat iron.  Although, in the future, when you open up your dungeon to paying guests, you need to put more than two towels in the bathroom.  Even though I enjoyed seeing how royalty monograms their towels: D di F; there need to be more than two.  Really, friends, if you are looking for an adventure and you are in Puglia, go stay with the Dentices.  And then you, too, can say you slept with a prince.

Onto the gnome house.  The entire reason people are “discovering” the region of Puglia is because of little, tiny houses called “trulli”.  These miniature abodes are only found in one valley, the Val d’Itria, and they are scattered out in the country and they are piled on top of one another in the villages.  Apparently, the story goes that, back in medieval times, the king declared that any “new” villages would be taxed according to the number of houses in the village.  So, the Principes, YES, HIM!, instructed all of their serfs to build little, tiny round houses out of dry stacked stone and make them look like huts for animals.

When the king’s men came around to collect the taxes the Princes stood up on their castle balconies and said, village?  What village?  Those little huts yonder are for the pigs and the sheep.  Ain’t no village, here, buddy.  Of course, meanwhile, those Princes were shoving families of 10 and 12 into huts roughly the size of a baby’s Port-A-Crib.  Medieval times were just not very pretty, were they? 

Anyway, today, in that perverse way that we cherish in modern times, people come from all over the globe and spend good, hard-earned cash to sleep in these tiny trulli which used to house three generations plus cattle, just because they can.  And I cannot begin to tell you how incongruous it is to see a bunch of Chinese tourists with their 1,000 dollar Nikons swarming over a medieval village THAT IS NOT READY FOR THEM.  This area of Italy is not quite prepared for the hordes that are descending upon them.  We stayed in the most “well-known” village, Alberobello, which is just trulli after trulli after trulli and it is beyond cute.  But.  There is, literally, no parking, especially not for buses.  There are not enough restaurants.  There are not enough bars.  There are plenty of ticky, tacky gift shops and there is PLENTY of potential, but the villagers are just overwhelmed at this point.  Bless their hearts.  They ONLY speak Italian and they have no idea what to do with busloads of Chinese people or Americans with gluten allergies.  Gluten-free pasta?  What?  Why?  Why would you want that?

So, I booked our trulli through Trulli Holiday, whose office is located in the center of town, but they own 15 trulli scattered throughout the village.  It’s a crap shoot, really, which trulli you will wind up in.  But, it doesn’t really matter because the entire village is about as big as a Super Wal-Mart and you can’t park anywhere near any of the trulli anyway because the whole town is an UNESCO world heritage site, so it’s pretty irrelevant which EXACT trulli you get.  (I say this because there are a bunch of Americans on Trip Advisor who are complaining about the fact that they had to WALK UP A HILL or PARK 50 FEET AWAY or, the best:  OUR TRULLI WAS SMALL.  Really, American Person?  It’s a trulli.  If you want to stay in a big place, go visit the Principe.)

You will recall that this was Easter weekend and Italy is a very, very catholic country.  Hence, the entertainment for the evening in Alberobello was a reenactment of that most historic weekend, from the Last Supper through the Crucifixion to the Reawakening or whatever the correct terminology is for all of these things. Forgive me, I am not religious and please keep that in mind while you read the following paragraphs.

When every other single soul in a village is going somewhere, you, naturally, follow.  As the entire village of Alberobello walked down the hill at 8:00 p.m., I turned to Mr. Big and said:

Me:  Dude.  I think that that play that we saw a poster of must be something big because everyone is walking down there.

Mr. Big:  Since when have you become interested in The Passion of the Christ?

Me:  Since never, but I think this could be hugely funny.  Do you think there will be live camels?

Mr. Big:  I think you are confusing the Ascension with Christmas.

Whatever, Mr. Big-Know-It-All.  We put on our coats, (another hint to complaining Americans, Italy is NOT always warm, considering it is on the same latitude as, like, Toronto), grabbed our cameras and marched down the hill.   Well, this was not some half-ass production.  This was legit outdoor theater in their 37th year of doing the same show.  All of the locals had seen it 37 times and knew the whole thing line by line, so they stood in the back.  The front was mobbed with tourists and so I pulled an “Auntie” (refer to earlier blog post) and weaseled my way around the Chinese and all of the kids right into the center spotlight.

Ok, it was cool.  There was Mary Magdalene at the well.  There were all of the saints around the wooden table and the feet washing and the whole nine yards. There were soldiers with helmets with brooms attached on their heads, (very clever, see picture, kudos to the costume designer), and caves and prisons and crosses, etc.  And then.  And then, there was Jesus.  Let me tell you, Jesus has improved since I last saw his picture in those Highlights magazines in the pediatrician’s office.  This Jesus looked like Hugh Jackman.  This was Hot Italian Jesus.  Hugh Jackman Jesus was enough to turn a heathen like me into a believer.   

Not enough of a believer to stay for the whole three hours, however.  We made it through about an hour and a half and we still hadn’t reached the gory part and I was ready to go. 

Me:  Mr. Big, have you had enough religious education for one night?

Mr. Big:  This woman behind me has been poking her zoom lens into my neck for the past 20 minutes.  I’m opting for a wine in my trulli.

Me:  Trulli it is!  Bye, Hugh Jesus!  Not to worry!  You will be really, really famous one day and have millions of Twitter followers even though it is not looking good for you right at this moment!

(Jeez, I know I am horrible and my Mormon relatives are gasping in disbelief right now, but he was REALLY cute!)  This blog post has gone on waaaaaay too long and there are some other things that I need to tell you about this region and the places that we went, but that can wait until next week.  Meanwhile, for my mother-in-law, here are some pictures and I promise that I will put some more on the Trailing Spouse Facebook page.  Ciao, everyone.