“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” – James Michener

The thing I love most about traveling is that it allows me to take a step away from all that is familiar. New places. New people. New climates, food, and customs. Why would you ever leave home if you were afraid to embrace the unknown?

When, on our recent trip to Italy, the pilot makes an announcement that the crew should “prepare for initial decent,” my stomach did a flip. Ten whole days of discovery ahead of us–I was stoked.

When we arrived at our Milan apartment–red-eyed and running on adrenaline–we were welcomed by owner Hermann, his wife and two little girls. Feeling SO out of our element in a country we had only dreamed we would visit one day, we were immediately embraced (literally) by this tiny family and led into their modern Milano abode. It was more than we could have imagined. As Hermann guided us through the tiny loft apartment, pointing out the espresso machine and giving us tips on how to get around in the area, I suddenly felt so worldly– so welcome.

We spent the day exploring the area — filling our baskets with bottles of red wine from the market, eating pizza at an outside cafe, watching a rousing game of bocce ball at the park. I was quite content to sit on the park bench and watch people.

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people in the park in milanIn the evening, trying hard to stay awake so we could get on Italian time, we were drawn into a local restaurant by the sound of laughter. As soon as we entered the restaurant, my senses went on complete overload. The pungent, almost narcotic smells of cheese layered with the earthy aromas of spicy sausage and sweet prosciutto was topped off by the bitter scent of espresso.

Tables covered in venetian red tablecloths had been pulled together in the center of the room. Here, a large Italian family — moms and dads, aunts and uncles, kids and grandparents —  were laughing and drinking and eating. It was right out of a movie. It was all I could do not to pull up a wooden chair and raise a glass with the jovial relatives.

We spent the next few hours at that local restaurant. Eating, drinking… and then eating and drinking some more. The owner seemed determined to have us try nearly everything on the menu! Just when we thought we were done, he insisted on sharing more limoncello and just one more special dessert he’d like us to try. The more delighted we were with his offerings, the more food and drink he brought to the table. Breads and puddings–and shots of some kind of alcohol that went well with peach dessert. You could see the pride on his face as he watched us taste the gelato and take bites out of the pie.

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When the lights were turned off suddenly and a piece of cake with a sparkling candle was presented to one of the little girls at the next table, we joined in a chorus “happy birthday.” )A universal melody, thankfully.) The night couldn’t have been more perfect.

On our way out, after several rounds of “buona nottes” and hand shaking, we were presented with a bottle of wine to take with us. The big, happy Italian family just gave us a bottle of wine, amid pats on the back and nods. Crazy. Wonderful. Welcoming.

On our first night in Italy and I was already completely head over heals in love with the country and its people.