Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 11

Italian Espresso Machines…

Private Rental Idiosyncrasies…

Another fifteen-minute trudge from the parking garage, and four flights of stairs, brought us, finally, to our apartment in Milan. As we dropped our luggage and collapsed onto his sofa, Donato (our airbnb “host”) offered us an espresso to welcome us. His machine was one of those Keurig-style espresso makers that are ubiquitous throughout Italy and as yet unavailable in North America—one small example, that is, of the paradoxical evidence that, technologically, Europe is far more advanced than the New World. I’ve already animadverted on the befuddling gadgetry of European automobiles, but in this case, European innovation makes sense. A machine that dispenses a single shot of espresso using a sealed capsule (without the bother of filling and tamping down a brewing head) is a great convenience, whereas single servings of “American” coffee are a boon only to the profiteers of the international coffee cartel.

Unfortunately, Donato wasn’t able to divine how to insert the “pod” into the machine’s portal. This should have been a warning to us that European domestic technology is another snare, and unless one’s host is thoughtful enough to take his newly-arrived guests on an exhaustive orientation of his apartment, the first day of their stay will inevitably be wasted on figuring out how things work.


Years ago, we rented an apartment for a month in Provence whose owner neglected to tell us that the water, electricity, and heat had all been shut off. We fumbled about in the dark and dampness for a day searching for an electrical panel and water supply until we recruited a kindly neighbour who escorted us down into a four-foot high rubble cellar where they were occulted. The owner of the house was an American academic whose literary specialty was deconstructionism, a cultural attitude he evidently carried over to the décor of his sabbatical idyll. Though the apartment was located in the middle of a quaint seventeenth-century row in Claviers (one of the most beautiful perched villages in Provence), the interior was a slum. The subsequent three days were spent scavenging throughout the house for the odd pieces of furniture and ceramics that were not a complete affront to the famed Provencale aesthetic, and hiding the Ikea and Salvation Army turpitude in closets and the attic.

Tourists who prefer non-conventional accommodations must be prepared for such adventures. It’s jolly that in privately-rented homes (as opposed to hotels) you can wash your clothes and cook your dinners, but good luck figuring out their idiosyncrasies. Televisions invariably come with three remotes (one for the TV, one for the cable box, and one for the DVD player), but which is for which, in what order they must be turned on, and with which you change the channel and adjust the volume, is always a mystery that requires an hour of experimentation to solve. (In keeping with their technological precocity, Europeans are addicted to remotes. Even their mini-split heater-air conditioner units come with them, and though their displays offer a dizzying array of different “modes”, none of our hosts deigned to explain what they were for, and thus how to turn the damn things on.)

I wrote earlier about the blithe assumptions people make about local knowledge, which applies perforce to the owners of rental properties. All of our apartments came with WiFi, but our hosts rarely thought to leave a note with the passwords. Limitations of space mean that European apartments are usually equipped with ingenious washer-drier combinations, whose displays resemble the instrument panels in the cockpits of NATO fighter jets. In Bologne, the owner of our rental confessed that she had no idea how to program the dryer, so we were compelled to buy some string from a local hardware store and hang our wet laundry outside the kitchen window, just like the permanent residents on the street. (I’m convinced, by the way, that this picturesque European atavism has nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with the fact that no one can figure out how to operate their machines.) In the same Bolognese apartment, the refrigerator and microwave failed to work because, as we discovered several anxious minutes later, their power cords were unplugged from the single kitchen outlet hidden behind the stove.


One would think that landlords renting to tourists might have the ordinary decency to provide some instructions on how to navigate their domestic arcana, but as I’ve said, if they know where to find the hidden outlet, they can’t imagine that a complete stranger wouldn’t be able to. These might seem like minor annoyances, but solving technological puzzles and moving furniture are more than normally onerous chores when the churches, palazzi, and museums one has come to visit are visible just outside one’s window, and seem to mock the traveler who is forced to become pre-occupied with such trivialities. In any case, after our thirty-hour ordeal, we were too exhausted to do any exploring. Donato eventually shamed his machine into swallowing its capsules of coffee and returning two perfectly brewed shots of espresso, which he presented to us in triumph. We drank them out of politeness, bid him arrivederci, plugged in our two white-noise machines (one of which promptly blew up, because it wasn’t compatible with European voltage), then retired, at three in the afternoon, to bed. But either jet-lag, the recollected horrors of the journey, or the caffeine made sleep impossible, so we stumbled downstairs and headed up the street, toward the Porta Ticinese, determined to achieve at least a few moments of touristic pleasure and redemption.