Return trip to Italy: You can recapture travel magic

CNN  — 

I was at the counter of a tony café in Turin when I had a moment. Looking around the elegant coffee bar, I felt swaddled in Italian opulence – and immersed in Italy. The woman next to me was warning the barman about cold drinks.

As an Italophile, I recognized the conversation as one that could only happen in Italy. The perceived danger of something relatively benign such as consuming a cold drink is a thoroughly Italian concern.

My plan in Turin was to conduct a personal pastry tour. That meant multiple breakfasts – my regular ciambellina (a doughnut-like pastry) and something new. Gluttonous? Maybe. But I was in Italy, and I was revisiting a lengthy list of old habits.

So I savored my ciambellina at the Baratti & Milano café while the barista, dressed in a bespoke vest, chatted with the signora as if his livelihood depended on it. Probably because for him, it did. The unwritten job description of an Italian barista pivots heavily on engaging customers in a sincere way – befriending them, even if only momentarily.

When the lady turned to go, she thanked him personally for his service. To which came the immediate reply, “What for?” The barman’s tone was genuine. Why would she ever thank him for something that was so clearly his pleasure and his duty to do?

Then he added, “Arrivederci! And do me a favor: watch after yourself for me!”

It was a minute encounter with Italy – but the kind of moment I was hungry to experience again on this nostalgic return trip. Standing at the counter, I was alone; I didn’t know the woman or the barman. But I could never truly be alone, not in Italy.

A photographer’s nostalgic ode to 1960s Italy

Steeped in nostalgia

When I began planning my trip, I knew already the visit, largely focused on the northern city of Turin, would be epic.

Not because I knew the city (I didn’t). Rather I had faith in nostalgia travel – a microtourism approach where you revisit a signature place and reconnect with memories. As you explore, you’re charting changes in the landscape as if you were writing your autobiography. After studying Italian in college, I lived in Florence after graduation. Since then, I’ve tried to recreate those golden years.

The sensory pleasures of Italy are everywhere.

Nostalgia tourism dispenses with traditional traveling itineraries. It’s all about the little things, like stopping to listen as the church bells chime and breathing in jasmine flowers, which is Italy’s scent for me.

It’s about taking the pulse of a place, a personal kind of traveling that’s tied less to friends and more to private moments. In Florence, for example, I revisit my old flat. Two years ago, I noticed new screen windows. This trip, I found my old bus route had shifted.

I’ve experimented with this kind of throwback travel before. During a quickie trip to Italy two years ago, I dashed through Rome and Florence. But the trip’s success was immediately clear through a couple of tiny moments of pure nostalgia for Italy.

My first night in town, a Roman taxi driver pumping his fist over a Juventus soccer game on the radio caught my eye in the rearview mirror. He clearly wanted to share his joy. Smiling, I blurted out two words I’d never said before: “Forza Juve!” Go Juventus.

Then, a man with a motorcycle helmet entered a café by the Campidoglio. He jutted out his chin and exchanged a look with the barista that silently conveyed, “Can you believe that?” (Where both parties seemed to know exactly what “that” referred to.) For his part, the barman shot the customer one quick glance that telegraphed, “Oh, finally you’re here!” The wordless conversation was part theater, part afternoon chronicle. Nothing happened, but for me it was everything.

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Finding a past self

To be sure, before leaving on my trip, I worried about jet lag and if my fluency would return. I also wondered if something I once loved would no longer enchant me.

But when I arrived in Turin, someone else emerged – she spoke Italian and went everywhere on foot. Me, in other words, seamlessly falling back into my old Italian life, partly because I was swimming in a sea of Italian words.

Language fluency meshes with nostalgic travel; any trip to Italy is a linguistic remember-when. As I stopped at other cafés, I fell in love again with Italian life – how the streets pulse with people. People on foot, boarding trams, on bikes.

Indeed, one thing had not changed in my absence: Italians still seek face-to-face contact – even in the digital age. This is especially so in Turin, a city of large squares and historic cafés.

The site of the 2008 Winter Olympics, Turin is surrounded by mountains and criss-crossed by trams and cyclists. Being outdoors is second nature. Turin is covered in porticos, or covered walkways, where you can stroll no matter the weather.

Even after a decade living in car-centric Atlanta, I found myself – to my surprise – walking miles and miles every day, as if each step refueled me for the next step. I wanted to absorb what made this city both different and the same as other Italian cities.

The deceptively simple ciambellina is what an American donut dreams of being.

Turin played a pivotal role in the Risorgimento, when Italy became an independent country. But this type of memory-laden travel is less about visiting historic places and more about exhausting a personal bucket list. So rather than visiting all of the “can’t miss” spots, I rented a bike and tooled around Turin like a native, stopping at an outdoor flea market where I proceeded to argue with merchants over prices.

And tourists returning to familiar places shop – with a twist. In Italy, I buy the type of store brand breakfast cookies I can’t find in America. I load up on coffee and stock my bookshelf. In Turin, I stopped off at coffee maker Bialetti’s home emporium to buy yet another signature Moka coffee pot (this time blue; last trip, green).

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Some things don’t change

Of course, some moments pale. When a barista pointed to multiple sizes of paper coffee cups at a Milan train station bar, I shivered. Italian bars, even at train stations, usually operate on old-school principles that don’t change. Coffee used to come in two sizes: espresso or cappuccino size. Not anymore.

It wasn’t the only sign of America’s influence – something I never properly brace myself for. I discovered Italy has Foot Locker stores now. That may explain why many Italians in Turin were wearing sneakers.

Some things, however, never change. Outdoor booksellers still meticulously set up their wares each morning, laying out the widest selection of books you’ve ever seen. Decades-old art books and political treatises sit next to cheap paperbacks. Who buys them? Boh. I was too busy perusing the books underneath the porticos of Via Po in Turin to find out.

Another thing that hadn’t changed was my love of Italian. It always takes a few days for my tongue to remember the right movements. But I quickly found my mind split in two between Italian and English once I settled into Turin – probably because I relentlessly sought out encounters with Italians.

At a sandwich shop, I clung to the counter. Rebuffing the kind owner’s offers of a chair, I hovered by him so I could eavesdrop as he talked to customer and shouted out orders to co-workers. Il Signor Panino will surely be a stop on a future nostalgia trip.

On the last day, I took a train to Milan to catch my plane to America. I love Milan, but I was still surprised to find myself logging a three-hour meander through the city’s downtown touristic treasures. At each turn, I journeyed farther from my hotel. Instead of winding down, I was revving up.

I’d set out to trigger my nostalgia impulse – and succeeded. The void created by my departure from Italy years ago is still there.

A void that can only be filled by going back.

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator who teaches Italian at the University of Connecticut.