149. Untold Italy

I have finally found the one person in the universe who is more into Italy than I am: Katy Clarke.

Katy is a young(ish) Australian woman who is married to an Italian-Australian, and has built an empire of mostly free resources all about travel to Italy. There’s her Untold Italy podcast, where she and other knowledgable enthusiasts discuss a topics of interest. The conversations amble along, no detail too small to include, informal yet filled with content. Some are straight travel guides, like “Christmas in Capri” or “Day Trips from Sorrento,” which are narrow and particular in focus and therefore more interesting than the usual tourist guide. Many center around the various regional food specialties, like “Tastes of Sicily.” My favorites are the general travel advice, like the recent “Extend your Italy Trip Budget with these Travel Hacks,” and a personal favorite, “Packing for Italy,” in which Katy’s guest expert (Corinna Cooke, a tour leader, travel writer and professional makeup artist) implored listeners to pack light and only bring three colors of eye shadow, but to make sure to bring clothes in colors that will “pop” in photographs.

Each episode comes with detailed notes that list every product or place mentioned in the show, as well as a PDF transcript, both of which are great for future reference. Even if you’re not so interested in Italy, it’s worth listening to one of these podcasts just to get a load of Katy Clarke’s occasionally impenetrable Aussie accent. I have spent some time in Melbourne, but I have never heard anything like it. Sometimes Ben and I try to mimic the sounds, but our mouths just don’t cooperate and we can’t get close.

My ideal packing scenario: a carry-on suitcase, and a backpack with my purse and critical items stuffed inside. My “travel hack” is to engage an AirBnB with a washing machine halfway through the trip. Note the travel outfit is as close to pajamas as I can reasonably get it.

But my favorite thing about Katy Clarke is the Italy Travel Planning group she started and moderates on Facebook, which now has some 40,000 members, with a separate side group devoted to COVID-19 regulations and procedures. Every day, scores of people ask other members for advice on their intended itineraries — Is one day in Venice enough? Should I engage a private tour of the Vatican? What are the best souvenirs? Should I take a bus or a cab from the airport? What’s better — Cinque Terre or the Amalfi Coast? To my mind, their intended itineraries are way too ambitious, ping-ponging all across the country, a day here and an afternoon there. But I can understand the impulse to want to see as much as possible of this wonderful country, especially if it’s the first, or maybe only time, they’ll be there.

Just one day? No way.
No shortage of good souvenirs. They may look cheesy all lined up in the shop, but when you finally choose one and bring it home, it serves as a treasured reminder of your journey.

One could do a psychology PhD dissertation on the fears that are expressed through the questions. People worry about pickpockets and ask for advice on keeping their possessions safe. They worry if they’ll be up to the physical challenge of getting around, particularly those with health issues or disabilities. How will they get euro? How will they make themselves understood? Occasionally someone doesn’t like pasta — what will they eat? Most frequently expressed is anxiety that the Italians will be judging them, particularly their clothing and their shoes. Those who have been before reassure them that they’ll be fine. It can sometimes get a little rough: when people seem to want to reproduce their exact routines from home while they’re there (one poor soul bemoaned not being able to get his daily Frappuccino), the commentary can have a tinge of vitriol, and Katy has to step in a close off the comments and gently remind everyone to be civil and respectful. But for the most part, everyone is delighted to be able to share their enthusiasm, advice, and memories from their own journeys, especially when they’ve just returned home and are delighted, proud, and maybe a little relieved, by their positive experiences.

No shortage of good things to eat, even if you don’t eat pasta. (By the way, gluten-free is an increasingly available option.)

I am a tough customer when it comes to speaking and writing about Italy. It’s not that I consider myself an expert or am a stickler for accuracy. But they have to get the attitude right. I am hypersensitive to anything that smacks of condescension, or negativism, and I will remember a critical comment and hold a grudge for years. But somehow, Katy Clarke and her Italian travel empire get it just right. Good on ya, mate.

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