We were greeted in the far northern Italian town of Bolzano by a stout woman who looked like an older relative of Lidia Bastianich. “Come, come,” she rushed. “We have many things to see and do today so we must be quick! You will hear me on your earpieces and follow along behind me but do keep up!”
We put on our entirely embarrassing ear pieces and audio sets and formed a line like ducklings down the pavement. “We hurry through this part just here,” she said, waving at a multi-story building. “You see it is full of migrants from Africa. Mostly young men. No work. They just sit in there all day doing I don’t know what- playing on phones. Not safe. Let’s keep moving.”
A few men with skin like balsamic smoked cigarettes and chatted. They glanced over as she spoke. Amos, a fellow traveler, frowned at the statement and rose his eyes towards the sun as if to say, “Oh, people.” I wondered why people felt the need to make these totally unwarranted, unrequested statements. She continued to explain how it was unsafe because, essentially, they were different than Italians and Austro-Germans and therefore well…unsafe. The majority of the group began displaying a mildly pained look before she became distracted by the Duomo di Bolzano.
We explored the local church, the former synagogue turned bank (“We have always allowed the Jews to worship with the exception of World War II though they were required to have their own schools.”), and merchants streets. “Inside we have copies of Giotto’s frescos – these are very difficult. Painting with pigments into wet plaster. Must work very fast. And outside, you see the war.” The church had been carefully rebuilt, brick by golden brick, to fill in the large gaps made by bombs. “Many other places of worship were not so lucky.”
She explained the melding of the unique city: Italians studied in German schools; Germans studied in Italian schools and this way everyone had an equal stake in making things work and everyone could communicate. “My eldest daughter married a German. Only two grandchildren. So serious. So stoic,” she sighed. “My younger daughter- she married an Italian. Six grandchildren! The Italians – they are more romantic than the Germans. Busy, busy!” Chuckles all around.
We break from the group to travel down the market street before turning into a small tavern for schnitzel with teensy cranberries and local wine. At some point they squeezed in a bathroom which functioned somewhat. From my stall partition, I overheard an Englishman arguing with a Japanese tourist from Tokyo I had met just before. “I’ll help close the door!” the Japanese man shouted. “It is stuck!”
“No!” the Englishman bellowed back. “I’ll be trapped!”
As I finished up and exited, I saw the Japanese man shrug and take his place beside him- door wide open to the world.
The schnitzel was crisp and lightly salted. Tender enough for only a fork with boiled potatoes doused in vinegar and little garnet cranberries piled alongside. The white wine was crisp and acidic- surprisingly not sweet as I had expected.
As we waited for the group to regather, I watched African migrants ply boards of cheap sunglasses. Police officers patrolled the area and shooed them away. They all seemed to sell the same thing in the same way. I wondered if they had pooled their money for a bulk order. A few middle schoolers ponied up for eyewear as a man stood forlorn next to his inconsolable toddler. “Maaama!” he shrieked again and again. She finally came around the corner, took notice of him for a moment with a boop to the nose, and he was instantly silent. His father pursed his lips.
“In Bolzano,” our guide announced, “There is a drink for every time of day. In the morning: white wine spritz, in the afternoon: beer or white wine, in the evening: apertivo before dinner and red wine with dinner, after dinner: digestivo, before bed: brandy!”
Up next: The Dolomites!