While I was in high school, my family tried to make sure each Summer was memorable by taking a grand vacation every year. Most weren't that "grand" but only a few states away. The Summer before my senior year, however, we went all out and took a trip to Italy.
While visiting the country, we toured from Naples to Siena with the bulk of our stay in Rome. One afternoon, my father and I had seen enough of the Vatican's expanse of artwork and left my mother and sister to continue there while we went out in search of lunch.
We walked from the Vatican City to Piazza Navona. As each tour bus or walking tour passing through the plaza will tell you, this is the home to la Fontana del Fiumi (the Fountain of the Four Rivers), designed by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (no, he's not a filmmaker). Bernini's rival in design, Borromini, created the facade of the church nearby and to jab the artist in eternity, one of the figures on the fountain, Rio della Plata, holds his hand up in anguish in the direction of the chapel while covering his head with a cloth. Most American tourists, however, recognize it as the site where Bruce Willis' character encountered the candy-bar-named foes in
Hudson Hawk, or one of the many locations where Chevy Chase wreaks comic mayhem on ancient treasures in European Vacation.
We sat down at a little cafe under some umbrellas and ordered water.
A note to those who haven't visited Rome: Bottled (and carbonated) water is something you discover early in your Roman holiday as the standard non-alcoholic drink consumed at said cafes -- the other standard drinks include wine or Campari, the latter of which is most often reserved for old men watching the world go by. It should also be noted that Italian lire convert into American dollars at about 1500 to 1. As with all
tourists in foreign countries, the odd currency might as well be Monopoly money for the rate at which it is used; without a good understanding of "how much is a candy bar" and "how much is a car," your money tends to evaporate as quickly as you withdraw it from cash machines or currency exchange offices.
As my father and I sipped out water and glanced over the menu, we decided a light lunch was in order. We each ordered a ham sandwich. Shortly after arriving in Rome, you notice that every restaurant has a display case of pre-prepared sandwiches, most of which look phony and almost disgusting to Americans. The sandwiches are thin, modestly assembled, and look as if they've been there for months. With memories of radio interviews where some Beatle describes wiping his nose on sandwich ingredients before making it big with music, it takes many display cases before you build the courage to think about ordering them and many more
before you actually do. At this cafe, it was our first attempt at ordering them.
What came out later was one of the tastiest things I have ever put to my mouth. A single slice of ham, a single slice of cheese, all baked on Italian flat bread. My father and I quickly devoured our respective sandwiches and ordered soda to wash them down.
Another note to new visitors to Europe. While they don't serve soda cold in most European countries like they do in America, most Italian cafes will pour it over ice (we never could tell if the servers did this on the assumption that we were American or if it was standard practice). However, the serving size is approximately six to eight ounces, which when compared to the Mega-Uber-Gulp you get at 7-Eleven, is just a sip.
So my father and I, our appetites and thirst whetted slightly, ordered another sandwich and another soda each. As our second helping arrived, my sister and mother happened to walk into the square at which we were dining. They joined us at the table and we convinced them to each try a sandwich. Of course, having walked a significant distance in the August sunlight, they also required liquid refreshment. More bottled water was served.
August in Italy (Rome in particular) is considered a month-long holiday. Most shops and restaurants close and their proprietors head to who-knows-where for some rest and relaxation. The cafe we were eating at was one of the exceptions and obviously stayed open during the vacation
month mostly to rein in the tourist crowd.
Which is exactly what we were. By the time we had finished consuming several sandwiches a piece, a number of bottles of water, and countless refills of tiny soda glasses, we called it quits and asked for our check.
We each dug into our wallets to cover the bill, which had zeroes on an order of magnitude we couldn't even begin to wonder how much it was.
Later in our hotel, my sister asked us all, "What was the bill at lunch?" My father told her. She did the math in her head, as the rest of us hadn't bothered. "That's over ninety dollars, guys," she said.
We all gasped. And canceled our dinner reservations for that evening.