We made it! And as we drove into town from Torino airport -- a night without sleep notwithstanding - impressions came fast.
One of the first things I noticed was the relative absence of that telltale Italy sound, the rapid, insistent beep-beeping of car horns. When I used to come to Italy as a child from the U.S, I'd lay in bed that first night at my grandmother's house marveling at the strange honking outside. It was the soundtrack that told me I was back.
But here in Torino, it's different. The streets are quieter, calmer than what I'm used to in Naples, Rome, and other parts south of here. The drivers aren't as crazy.
And as we walked through town, I noticed that the people seemed different too. They looked sterner, more serious. They weren't gesticulating as much or talking as loudly.
Not surprising this city is more like its northern European neighbors, I thought. After all, Torino is a lot closer to Geneva than it is to Rome.
But as we walked through the city center, the Italy I know and love started to emerge.
Couples leaned against ancient buildings locked in passionate long kisses (even in the January cold). Young Torinese seem to conduct their love lives outside too, just like other Italians. (In Naples, a parked car with newspapers hanging from the windows usually means someone is having some kind of sex inside.)
And as the afternoon turned to early evening, older, smartly-dressed Italian couples came out too for their walk through town, their leisurely "passeggiata", arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand, chatting.
So it is Italy. But it's not the sun-drenched, hands-waving, work-shy Italy of the stereotypes.
Saturday morning, one person quickly made the differences clear -- the middle-aged hotel cleaning lady in her starched pink uniform.
"Are you a Torinese?" I asked her as she made my bed.
"No, I'm a Neapolitan," she answered with a big smile. "But I've been here since 1969." She's one of the hundreds of thousands of southern Italians who migrated north to this city for work in the 1960s, mainly in the booming FIAT car factories of the time.
"Torino has given me what my own city couldn't," she said matter-of-factly. "And I'm grateful for that. But I've had to work hard for it."
I could tell that what she really wanted was to sit down and have a nice long chat. But her beeper rang.
"I have to go," she said. "In Torino, we're ruled by the watch."
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