With the sun setting early now that daylight savings time has ended, I’m reflecting on my recent trip to Italy.
I was lucky to receive an invitation from my good friend Andreas. He is an aspiring professional golfer, and had reserved a space in the qualifying tournament for the European Tour. Stage One was a series of 4-round tournaments, and ours took place in a little town called Bogogno, near Milan. Andreas offered to pay my airfare and hotel for the week in exchange for caddying for him during the tournament. How could I say no?
We stayed in a town called Veruno, a short drive from Bogogno. Our hotel room overlooked a small family vineyard, where one day I saw people harvesting grapes. The town roads were mostly very small and narrow, built long before the need to accommodate car traffic. In the center of the small town there was a church with a bell tower.
The people we met were helpful and pleasant without exception, from the mothers and daughters who ran our hotel, to the bag room attendants at the golf club, to the merchants and waiters in the town’s shops and restaurants. Many of them spoke English quite well, which allowed Andreas and our pal Chewy to get away with not even trying any Italian phrases in most situations. I appeared to be the intrepid traveler because I purchased a language book before the trip – I failed Italian twice in college, and yet in our threesome I was the de facto language expert.
One night we had dinner in a small trattoria which had a small menu with just a few pasta dishes. This was several days in, and Andreas was tired of eating only pasta and pizza. “I need some protein,” he kept saying, extolling the virtues of his daily protein shake and how he’d gotten his dad to start drinking it. “Rindo,” he says, “why don’t you go practice your Italian and try to rustle up a little chicken and vegetables for me?”
I engaged the bar owner, a woman about my mother’s age, to see if they had any pollo and verdura. Really, not the hardest thing to get across. She explained that the only chicken they had was a frozen, breaded breast. This I understood only because she brought it out to show me. She said they also had some spinach, so I agreed that would be fine. When it arrived, it turned out that the chicken was processed in such a way that the spinach was inside the meat – little specks of green. It looked pretty disgusting, and he hated it. The lessons here are many: when abroad, order something on the menu, buy a phrase book, don’t trust your caddy to order for you…
Besides that regrettable dish, the food was all excellent. Cheese gnocchi, ravioli, linguine, lasagna, tortellini, salami, prosciutto, and pizza! Red wine at every meal! And of course, fresh bread with lots of olive oil! One of the funniest moments of the week was Andreas and Chewy asking the waiter for olive oil for the bread. “Ummm, can we get some oil? Oil?” To a blank stare. “What’s the word for oil?” they asked me. “Olio.” And a wave of recognition swept over the waiter’s face. Haha!
The golf itself was not spectacular. Of the three golfers in our group, none made it through. But it was fun for me to witness the game at that level, and to see the nuances of the game in Italy as opposed to home. For example, it’s customary for US tournament hosts to put out some refreshments for the players – bottles of water, fruit, energy bars. In Italy, though, they put out bottles of San Pelegrino and salami on fresh baguettes. Slightly better!
About half the players had caddies, but it was rare to see them actually carry the bags. They all put them on pull-carts. This I found to be an insult to the trade, and refused to employ one. I noticed there were a lot of female caddies; it seems a lot of the guys have their wives and girlfriends on the bag. One guy we played with the first two rounds – he ended up winning the tournament – had his girlfriend caddying, and she was five months pregnant! She wasn’t just walking around out there, either, she was a true looper who knew what her job was. (Unlike the girl with us the following day, whose main purpose seemed to be necking with her man on every hole.)
The coolest part about the course was, on clear days, you could see the peaks of the Alps. The biggest one looming in the distance was Monte Rosa, the Pink Mountain, so named because of the tint it took on in the early morning sun. A quick google tells me it is the 2nd-highest in the Alps.
The last round of the tournament was Friday, and Chewy and Andreas were both around the same position on the leaderboard: they needed very low scores to have any chance of making it. Andreas got it to 3-under at one point, but just couldn’t capitalize as we came down the stretch. I was sitting in the car after the round, waiting for Chewy to finish up, and I saw him walking out of the club like he was in a daze.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“Mate, I had it to seven-under! And I gave five shots back in the last four holes!”
Poor kid was drilling it, making birdies everywhere, and looking like he had a shot to make it to second stage. But he finished bogey-bogey-double-bogey and that was that. Better luck next year. He excused himself to make a phone call, and wandered off toward the tennis court, looking weary. He came back 20 minutes later and had shaken it off, was back to his upbeat self, and as Andreas came out to meet us, we were getting excited to hit the big city.
We packed up the car, a tiny, tiny thing called the Nissan Micra, with all our gear, and it barely had enough room left for us in it. Two hours later we were in Milan. The concierge at the hotel saw three bedraggled foreigners in front of him, asking where to go for a good time on a Friday night. He smiled.
“You guys wanna go to Club Hollywood!”
Indeed we did. The tournament behind us, we ponied up to the bar for ten-Euro vodka/red bulls and sank into the atmosphere. Beautiful people in town for Fashion Week surrounded us, while DJ Sinatra, flown in from NYC, commanded the room, making it fade into a blur…
The next day we did our tourist bit, checking out the Duomo Cathedral, which is absolutely massive, and the Armani complex, which we found absolutely hilarious. The man whose name is synonymous with the highest quality bestows that label not only on clothing and sunglasses, but on bedroom furniture sets and office garbage cans. It became a running joke: “You see that lamp? Armani. And that shower curtain? Armani.” We were supposed to go to the Armani restaurant to review it for Candice, but they turned out to be under renovation, along with the Armani hotel. Later that night we stood outside the Armani night club, but they weren’t about to let us in.
Saturday night in Milan we had what I considered the best meal of the week. Acting on a tip from a website, we went to some famous restaurant, but it was closed, because we showed up close to midnight (we had napped the afternoon away). They suggested we go down the street to Paper Moon. Friends, if you are ever in Milan, this is the spot. It has the ambiance of a cafe, but the waiters wear pressed whites like a fine dining establishment. The clientèle are the cool-but-not-chic creative class – people you can tell know what’s going on. The hostess actually laughed at Chewy for putting Parmesan on his linguine and clams – although she followed it up with a genuine, “If you like it, it’s OK.” Order the house specialty appetizer. It’s a simple dish of flat noodles with a basil and tomato cream sauce. Nothing fancy, but made with love – and something to write home about.
For more pics from Milan, check out my Balconies series