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Italy & SERVAS: A great travel option.

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This month's article opens the door to one alternative to help the solo traveler go it alone.

And if you are a traveler who enjoys learning about a country and getting to know the people there, SERVAS is one viable option to add to your travel itinerary.

Years ago we came to know Moritz, the monkey of some friends in Minnesota. There were times he alighted on a shoulder and proceeded to peruse our hair for whatever grooming purposes monkeys think necessary.

During these times, he often rewarded us by peeing profusely down our backs. This, it seems, is supposed to be the ultimate in monkey approval although I, for one, wished he had found other ways to show his appreciation.

There were other times when Moritz was found in the highest possible spot in the room, as far removed as he could get from human contact. There he would sit, hunched over with arms crossed in front, swaying back and forth and patting himself repeatedly on the shoulders. From this perch he looked down woefully on those below, repeating over and over a plaintive noise that sounded quite like 'peeps, peeps.'

Solo travel can well bring out Moritz' melancholy state although many writers seem to escape it entirely. Reading and re-reading any travel tale I get my hands on, I am always struck by the bravado of many of the authors.

 
Piazza de Ferrari. A city, no matter how beautiful it is, can be a challenge to the visitor. Especially one like Genova that has a rep for being closed to outsiders.

Being no slouch when it comes to taking off for parts unknown, I'm amazed how the writers pull off such daring deeds and how easily they strike up casual friendships while on the road.

Even on our first camping trip in 1970 when we packed dog and tent in a beat-up old car and headed for San Francisco and back with three hundred bucks to tide us over, life on the road that summer was staid compared to the adventures I read about. And in over thirty years of taking the road less traveled, I'd be hard pressed to recall an incident that sparked the spontaneous travel friendships that so many writers seem to bump into quite easily.

 
Two harbor shots of the city selected as one of two European cities to visit for 2004.

On the chance that such bonhomie isn't all that common with the majority of travelers, this issue is devoted to one suggestion that can make a solo journey a bit more gregarious.

This fall's visit to Latvia and Italy was an intense language quest...for Pablo, Latvian in Skujas. After ten days of filling in conversational gaps with Spanish (hey, you gotta do something when you get all those Latvian speakers staring at you and expecting a response), I headed for Genova. In the process of practicing Italian, I had a chance to experience SERVAS first hand and found an attractive travel alternative.

Even with the colorful Year of Genova banners flying in the breeze to welcome the traveler, this was a city easier to navigate with help.
 

After reading TALES OF A FEMALE NOMAD by Rita Golden Gelman, I decided to give SERVAS a try. Gelman's travel stories are fascinating, intense and generally done independently but she does describe her SERVAS stay on the initial leg of her trip to Israel. As she writes in her book, 'SERVAS is an international network of hosts and travelers who are committed to building peace and understanding by putting together people from different cultures. Its members are hosts who want to meet international travelers and travelers who want to connect with the people of the country they are visiting.'

Like the author, I want to feel a connection with people wherever I'm traveling and thought it would be worth investigating.

 
In my mind there is no better way to connect with people than by sharing a meal together: one of the advantages SERVAS provides.

You sign up in the country where you reside which made it a tad interesting. After the initial contact with the Mexico director, it appeared that the primary qualification to be a SERVAS host was a phone. Well, no phone line comes out to our part of the woods and even if it did, the likelihood of my chatting away on an international call waxing poetic about the glories of Michoacán was remote indeed. An e-mail address would just have to do. In the true Mexican fashion, I blithely gave the number of our cell phone, conveniently omitting the fact that it is hardly ever turned on.

Generally, you can choose to be a SERVAS host or a traveler or elect to be both. Here the two categories were conveniently lumped together.

Bureaucracy in any country means time so my suggestion is to get going on the inscription thing well before your proposed journey. It took us two months to complete the process in Mexico and that was cutting it very close.

 
Walking both the busy main streets and the more deserted back alleys of the city, it was comforting to know I had a home (albeit temporary) to go back to.

In Gelman's account, she left making the arrangements for her home stays until she was in Tel Aviv and appeared to have no problem whatsoever lining up her hosts.

Maybe she was lucky or maybe Israel is different but Pablo's in country repeated attempts to contact the 14 Latvian hosts resulted in zip. I started e-mailing Italy in August for mid-September and was still scrambling once I was there. The SERVAS hosts I talked to who had also traveled with the organization said it took them more time than they expected to arrange their home stays.

I put an added edge to my search by seeking out those hosts with no English, so my e-mails and phone calls were all in Italian. Not as scary as walking around in circles for over an hour in a blizzard like I did once in Minnesota but about all the excitement I need at this juncture of my life.

Rafaela and Andrea were one of my last minute phone contacts. Intimidating as a phone conversation in Italian is for me, my hosts were anything but. Here Rafaela is in the macrobiotic restaurant she helps run in Neri.

One of the extra advantages of SERVAS is that it introduces one to new ideas and philosophies. I now have a terrific macrobiotic pizza recipe.

 

There are a couple other facets about the host lists that can put an added note of trepidation in your travel plans. If you are looking for English-speakers, you check out the host lists and look for 'ENG' in the language column. A blank space or the designation 'eng' means no or little English is spoken. Other travelers I talked to said that, depending on the country, the languages listed in Caps can simply be wishful thinking on the part of the host, leaving you to charades and invention. And this not being a perfect world, typos do exist, rendering null and void e-mail and home addresses and phone numbers. Like B.D. in his football playing days in the old Doonesbury cartoons, sometimes you just have to remember how to punt.

As Gelman found out, home stays can be pretty intense. My recommendation would be to intersperse the visits here and there with other accommodations just to get some down time. We didn't do this and I found myself doing little more than sleep for a couple weeks once we got home.

 
Gabriela and Franco, our hosts when Pablo joined me in Genova. They planned an evening get together with another SERVAS couple and friends where an exploding bottle of wine added a memorable and unique quality to a thoroughly enjoyable meal.

A visit can range anywhere from being given a key and free run of the house to finding yourself fed, guided about and looked after for every moment of the day. Whatever the situation, you really do have the opportunity to connect with your hosts and leave a place feeling you have the makings of a firm friendship formed in a short period of time.

Besides providing an insider's view of a country, SERVAS makes economic sense as well. In the logistics of modern day travel you're lucky to get a one star hotel room in Milan for 80 euros. The organization is definitely not to be used as the budget traveler's alternative to shelling out dough for a hotel but the SERVAS approach can expand your travel potential considerably, allowing you to stay longer in a country than otherwise would be possible. However, the main advantage remains the connection you form with the people and your increasing knowledge of their country.

Generally, stays are two to three nights. As Pablo loves to say, 'After three days, fish and guests tend to stink.' There can be exceptions however. A host may be willing to provide the chance to stay a month or more in exchange for help with household tasks, children or an aging parent or language lessons and practice.

The road to one SERVAS host's apartment, a short distance from the site where Christopher Columbus may or may not have been born.
 

It is important to give a few days notice even when the host list states the party requires 'no prior notice'. The guest should offer his or her letter of introduction immediately upon arrival. Some hosts made copies or read the introductory letter assiduously, some merely glanced at the sheet and others waved the paper away. But the latter only occurred when one party knew my prior host personally.

It's true that before venturing off on my first experience of calling up total strangers in a foreign country and asking them if I could stay at their house, I felt some trepidation. This is a strange new world we live in and who's to know you're not inviting an ax murderer into your home or going to stay with one. So to calm my jitters I checked out a couple SERVAS hosts in Mexico before the trip.

 
Just one of the umpteen parking areas for Italy's ubiquitous motor scooters. At least when they're parked, they're quiet. One soon learns that crossing a street filled with these scooters is more cause for jitters than making a visit to a SERVAS host.

I just asked to meet them to talk about their experiences. One guy related how he had been convinced to join the organization by a friend in California who had traveled extensively for years with SERVAS as an openly gay man. He raved about how his hosts had done their utmost to make his stay in every country he visited truly incredible. He couldn't say enough good stuff about the organization.

That was all I needed. In fact, in Italy one host told about a series of internal controls that can be set in motion when a suspicion arises about a traveler. I had refrained from contacting any single male but my first host who has been active in SERVAS for years pooh-poohed my reticence saying, 'Go ahead and ask. If they don't want you to come, they'll just say so.' Again very reassuring although I still didn't write to any male hosts.

Another feature of the group is that there is also a list of day hosts, people who can't offer lodging but are willing to show you around the city. For the more independent traveler who would prefer his or her own digs but likes the thought of a guide from time to time or just a person to chat with or help finding a longer term rental situation, this is an ideal arrangement.

Tina, a day host, who graciously showed me about Genova one Sunday and even more graciously invited me to her house after the tour for a meal.

Her grandmother's recipe for roasted pepers was delicious and has already been tried with rave reviews here in Pátzcuaro.

 

The traveler should bring some small gift representative of his or her country for each prospective host. I also found a couple small photo albums were excellent icebreakers. All the people I met were exceedingly interested in Mexico and since no one had yet visited the country, they greatly enjoyed the visual journey. Before leaving, it is customary to sign a guest book so unless you are clever at conjuring up cool prose on a moment's notice, plan on getting your 'speech' ready before you're called to the podium.

Since I was in Genova ten days alone and with Pablo five, we visited a number of hosts. The best idea we had was to invite everyone we had met to dinner together. Many of the hosts had not met each other so in a sense we were able to do for them what they did for us.

 
Here Marina, my first Genova host, meets Laura, our last host in Genova.

They were totally shocked to find out that we planned on picking up the tab. This could have been a very pricey undertaking indeed if it had been in one of Genova's up-scale, what I consider snooty, restaurants. Instead we went to one of the family trattorias that everyone agreed was an institution in Genova. Maria, the proprietor, has been cooking up typical Genovese food for years and has kept the lid on the cost so that you can still have a full meal with wine and dessert for around 12 euros per person.

Silvia, Marina's sister, holding the handwritten menu by Maria. Whatever was written was sure to have a Buenissimo or a Saporissimo or a Deliciosissimo after it.

Get there early if you expect to choose from the full selection. Favorites disappear fast.

 

We all had a ball; conversation around the table taking a typical Italian twist with all twelve diners talking at once at full volume in order to compete with each other and the three groups at smaller tables who were all doing the same thing. Pablo, with his German-Latvian background, admitted that while it was great fun, it was a trait that, for him, might take some getting used to. All in all, it was a perfect send off for the end of the trip.

Here we all are a tavola. It's too bad my very first SERVAS hosts in Bergamo, outside of Milan, were not here. They gave me a wonderful initiation into the SERVAS program and prepared me for the great experiences to come.

SERVAS does live up to its rep and then some as well as providing one additional traveler's aid not found in its promotional literature. When one has had a bad day in a foreign place, it's nice to go back to someone's home rather than face an evening alone with the blues in an impersonal hotel room.

Obviously, this first experience made us converts. In fact, I'm already getting the letters together to send to southern Italy for our mid January to mid February stay and will start e-mailing the end of this month.

The SERVICE experience was dead on as a defense against the prospect of feeling akin to Moritz in his 'peeps' state.

Since Moritz was eventually turned over to a simian rehabilitation center after he suddenly turned mean, I figure this is a very good thing.

With or without SERVAS, you can count on Italy for a great haircut. But SERVAS can make even a bad hair day look good.

For more information on the SERVAS organization, check out their web page at www.servas.org

You won't be disappointed.

 

There are, by the way, 77 SERVAS hosts in Mexico. Almost half are found in and around Mexico City with the remainder scattered through the rest of the Republic, including two new ones in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.

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