Pssst… I might be passing through Italy on the Ultimate Train Challenge.  How exciting is that?  I’m told  a must-do experience is buying a bottle of Italian wine for 4 Euros and washing that back with bread and cheese.  It’s a fitting analogy for Natalie Vartanian’s first ever Contiki tour.  Frugal, with an uexpected punch.  Please lap up today’s Summer Chick Tale.

It was fall of 2008, I had broken up with my boyfriend of two and a half years, moved in with a friend of mine who had a spare room and was coaching a Leadership program that was half-way done. Sounds like a sad state of affairs, yet the break up was long overdue and everything else in my life was acting as a catalyst for change toward the life I had always envisioned for myself. I saw it as the beginning of my freedom. One day my girlfriend, Laura, and I (who I was living with and coaching with at the time) were lounging at home and talking about traveling. When she mentioned she had never travelled internationally I nearly fell off the couch!

“What? You’ve never been abroad?! That’s it, we’re going somewhere together!” I felt like a mama bird that wanted to put her under my wing, whisk her off to a far away destination and let her soar towards her next life changing experience.

Besides that, I had not been out of the country in over two years thanks to being tied down in my relationship. Okay, we went to Hawaii, but that doesn’t count … it’s technically still the U.S.! I was itching to go somewhere, anywhere and bad!

Hence started the research of where to go once we finished with our Leadership program. Since Laura had never done anything like this, and she’s a controller by nature, she started the literal research right away. Honestly I was glad for that since my first two trips I was the one planning, organizing, making it happen, etc. It was a nice break to have someone else taking charge. So when Laura brought up the idea of doing a Contiki tour, that fit in perfectly with my mood of not doing shit but showing up and being carted around the country. My version of royalty, I know! Plus the idea of being with other people our own age from all over the world in another country during the holidays (i.e. Christmas hoopla), sounded pretty sweet. We picked a winter tour of Italy, paid for our package soon after and were set to head for Rome the day after Christmas.

Venice gondolas (Natalie and Laura)

As luck would have it, or maybe it was the cosmos saying we needed even more adventure, we missed our connecting flight to Rome (I swear we didn’t even hear them calling our names over the PA system) and had to take the next flight, which took off the following morning. We paid for a hotel in Atlanta and made the best of the situation. Since we did not arrive to Rome on the originally scheduled day, we also missed the Contiki group’s bus ride to Venice, the destination where the trip officially started. In order to catch up with them we paid for a train ride from Rome to Venice for the day we arrived and organized meeting up with the group at the hotel. Not only was the train ride gorgeous since we saw snow falling and rolling landscapes, but we got there just in time for dinner at a nearby restaurant.  This should have been a foreshadowing of some of the shenanigans to come the rest of the trip.

Our tour took us to Venice for a day, a brief visit to Pisa, Florence for two days and ended back in Rome for two days. Like the bunch of tourists we were, we snapped pictures like crazy but also soaked in the culture and beauty that is Italy. Our tour guide, Cristian, was amazing. He was real, funny, knowledgeable and over all a little entertainer. Before long we were singing classic Italian songs during the bus rides and acting all sorts of silly. You really do bond with the people you are traveling with, not all but definitely a core group. We had between 30 and 35 people on our tour and I still keep in touch with at least seven or eight of those people today.  It was a shorter trip, eight nights and nine days, and a chunk of it was transportation time going from city to city.

Laura and I decided to extend our trip a couple of days to explore the country ourselves. Since we bonded with one of the guys in our group, Tomassino from Montreal, who had coincidentally extended his trip for the same exact amount of time, we decided to travel together the three of us back to Tuscany to explore Siena. What a spontaneous addition to an already amazing vacation. We took the train from Rome to Siena and spent two days there, with no pre-reserved accommodations, and an additional day driving around Tuscany. We rented a car and explored little cities nearby like Monterriggioni and San Gimignano.  Honestly it is tough to pick out a “favorite” part of the trip, but New Year’s Eve in Florence definitely stands out for me.

Sunset in Tuscany

New Year’s Eve festivities started with dinner at a banquet hall near a monastery in Florence. They combined a number of other Contiki groups who were in the area at the same time, which made it a massive event. All dolled up and getting some liquor in us pre-meal, the feistiness started early in the form of some pretty overt flirting with the waiters. After dinner, we headed to a smaller bar, more pub-like in feel, for more drinking, dancing, karaoke and counting down to midnight. I am thankful for some of the girls I met in our group because we were all the same level of crazy and fun. We had animal ears on, were dancing wherever we could make a dance floor and making conversations with anyone that would listen.

Early in the night, I happened to look towards the door and instantly noticed a guy walk in who I thought was absolutely gorgeous. He stood out because most of the other guys in the bar were simply okay looking to me. Maybe my intention was strong (“must have guy!”) because we ended up chatting at the bar. We kept separating and reconnecting throughout the night, which was perfect since I got to interact with most of my group. At one point, Giuseppe (I know, can you get any more Italian than that?) even tried to set me up with his friend who was more “my age” since Guiseppe was much younger. Did I happen to mention that I have some cougar tendencies? Anyhow, I made it clear that it wasn’t his friend I was interested in, so when midnight rolled around and everyone was kissing each other on the cheek to celebrate the new year coming in, he made a bee-line for me and kissed me right on the mouth. Needless to say I knew it was “on” at that point.

Michelangelo’s bridge

I’ll spare you the details of the dirty dancing session and the hilarious debate of where to go to “hook up”.  Fast-forward to us making the trek back to my hotel, with me trying to remember exactly how to get back there in my inebriated state.  Once we arrived at the hotel, I buzzed the door bell (the protocol after a certain hour of night), and headed directly to the front desk with Guiseppe in tow. Quick side note: In a lot of European hotels, you leave your key at the front desk (since it’s usually an actual key) and pick it up from the concierge when you return. Totally fine in most instances, unless you are trying to bring back your lovah for the night in a Catholic country. The woman at the front desk was NOT having it. She asked who Guiseppe was and when I responded “a friend. We’re just going up to my room for a little bit”, she promptly shut down that possibility. We walked towards the dining hall and were stopped. There were also people in the computer room. So here I was thinking “F&@K! What the hell are we supposed to do? Sit in front of her in the lobby and make out?!” Right as I was nearing tears from the frustration, Guiseppe motioned for us to leave.

While outside he points to a side “emergency” door that leads to the computer room. He suggests I go back inside as if I’m going up to my room and let him in.

I look at the door which clearly says emergency and notice a cord plugged in to the wall and responded,  “But won’t the alarm go off if I do that?!”

He very calmly answered, “This is Italy. There are no alarms on doors.”

I point to the cord and said, “What about that?!?”

In his same point-blank manner said, “That is for the lights.”

Duuuhhh, there were Christmas lights strewn around the door. Did I feel stupid or what? Either way, I was not excited at the prospect of trying to sneak a guy in to my room when Cruella specifically said he was not allowed upstairs. I had butterflies having a full on dance party in my tummy. I did not have much time to deliberate, as the other options were not appealing. And hello … here was this hot guy standing right in front of me, working hard at a creative solution to our dilemma and I was not about to let him get away! I sucked it up, put my game face on and headed back in to the hotel.

Guiseppe

I walked to the front desk and asked for my key again from Cruella, who in my paranoid state I swore was giving me a look of knowing as I headed in to the computer room. I proceeded straight to the pay phone in the corner to pretend I needed to make a call. The realization quickly struck me that getting Guiseppe in the building was not going to be the problem, it was actually getting him up to my room as the stairs were in direct line of sight from the front desk. I also was afraid she would hear the door opening since it was late and so quiet you could hear a pin drop.  All of this was ping-ponging through my brain, in addition to the awareness that Guiseppe was waiting patiently outside for me.

As if by divine intervention, the door buzzer went off meaning someone had just gotten to the hotel. Realizing Cruella would be distracted with the recent visitors I ran to the side door and quickly ushered him in. I explained to him that if we go up the stairs she would be able to see us, so we hung out by the pay phone trying to come up with our next plan of action. The people that happened to arrive at the hotel, thankfully, were one of the couples from my tour group, Sarah and Jacob. When I saw them come around the corner in to the computer room I was so happy I could have kissed them! They asked what I was up to and I explained that I was trying to sneak Guiseppe upstairs because our friend at the front desk said no visitors. It was a pretty funny sight actually with Guiseppe hiding in the corner of the room while my friends joined in on the plotting of how to sneak him upstairs.

Finally Jacob says to me in a louder than usual voice, “Hey, do you still have that charger? I need it back.” He waves Guiseppe over, puts his arm around him and walks toward the stairs with Sarah and I close behind, shielding him.

They provided door side service and everything. I know you might be thinking: that sounds like a lot of work for a ‘hook up’.  Trust me, it was well worth it. Fireworks I tell ya, fireworks!

Natalie’s cohorts on New Year’s Eve

The next day we were off to Rome bright and early. Cristian, our tour guide, started the morning off giving me shit in asking how my night went. Later that night, a good part of our group had decided to have a nightcap at our hotel’s bar.

As we sat around, drinking and exchanging New Year’s Eve stories, my roommate looks at me and called me out.

“Natalie, don’t you have a story to share?” Somewhat mortified that I was outed in front of a large number of people, especially because our tour guide was present as well, I started to recount the details of the night before.

Sarah and Jacob were there too and pitched in with their side when I got to that point of the story.  It was quite a captive audience indeed and the reaction was a mixture of hilarious laughter and mouths gaping wide open.  What a night and what a trip!  You know what they say, “when in Rome”. Except for we weren’t in Rome. Besides, the more accurate statement would be: “when in Italy, DO an Italian!” I mean it when I say that it was definitely an experience I will not soon forget!

Author bio: Natalie Vartanian’s mother regaled her with tales of her boarding school days in India from age 6 to 16.  After hearing stories of the Far East while growing up, Natalie got bitten by the travel bug hard core. Responsibility for family and falling for the trappings of “success” postponed her first international trip until age 26. Yet it was love at first sight and she has been scheming of ways to make a living that allow her to travel, write and inspire others to live their dreams.  Catch her adventures on Natalie’s World Travels or if you’re interested in a personal overhaul, Coaching by Natalie is where you want to be.  Alternatively, she’s on Twitter or Facebook as well.

Summer Chick Tales was conceived from my love of the season and my obsession with slurpees.  I always have one every summer.  I also love women writers.  Lots.  If you want to submit a story or be in charge of the mojito station, see the editorial schedule.  Come on, join the XX chromosome party.

Photo of Florence: Elf_8