I’ve been recently labeled a Booking.com ‘Genius.’ At first I thought the website had tracked my account, recognized all the great deals I’d found, and had—through raw statistical data—determined that I’m really good at finding highly rated, low priced hotels.
I was wrong.
A subsequent email from Booking.com clarified that my ‘genius’ status had been bestowed upon me because I’d booked 15 different places with them over the past 12 months. 15! I’m not necessarily proud of this. It just means that they’ve made a lot of money off me, acting as my online travel agent. While it’s always flattering to be called a ‘genius,’ I am aware of their rudimentary psychology-based marketing strategy. (By the way: you, the reader, are a genius as well.)
Part of the advantage to making reservations on Booking.com is the ability to see all of the services and amenities the hotel offers you in the price of your stay. Personally, I could care less if the room has a flat-screen TV or a safety deposit box, but air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, and a balcony are greatly appreciated. Of all the hotel amenities, “Breakfast Included” has become the one perk that my girlfriend and I have now made a prerequisite. No free breakfast, no booking. It’s not only nice to have breakfast close by when you wake up, but it also makes me feel like I’m knocking off the expense of a modest meal for two people, which could mean a savings of about 20 euros ($25)—and that adds up on a 40-day road trip around Europe.
(Yes, feel free to curse me for my extended vacation, but please remember that—for a variety of reasons—you are still a genius.)
There are three (non-family/friend-related) things that I miss about not living in the United States: live music choices, Mexican food, and the American breakfast. The problem is that if you ever expect an American-style breakfast while traveling in Europe, you’re sure to be disappointed. Here’s what I’ve come to expect laid out on a table in the lobby somewhere between 8 and 10:30am: Slices of ham, cheese, bread, yogurt, croissants, some form of fruit, juice, tea, and coffee. If we’re lucky, they’ll include a variety of fruits and cheeses, tomatoes, assorted pastries, milk, cereal, and eggs! Imagining anything like pancakes or omelettes means I’m being delusional, probably still dreaming from the night before, so I try not to think about them. However, there have been some great morning buffet surprises between here (Sorrento, Italy) and Chalkidiki, Greece. Itoro and I started ranking them yesterday and it came down to a split decision between Lefkada and Tropea (-because of the terrace view).
But today’s morning looked to be the worst of all: No breakfast!
Having overshot our budget for a few days, we’d decided to free camp in Calabria. We had the basic equipment and—despite Itoro’s discomfort with the general idea of sleeping in the great outdoors—the time to scope out a nice place on the beach that was desolate enough to set up a tent and be inconspicuous. The only problem with free camping was that there’d be no free breakfast—something we’d become accustomed to (along with a bed, running water, electricity, a shower, toilet, four walls and a front door). After a long night and early morning of unzipping the escape hatch, taking five sandy steps, and pissing in the dark, we woke up hot and groggy just after sunrise. Our tent felt like a greenhouse. My back ached like Grandpa Joe’s.
Like true vagabonds, we hit the road without any prep and planned to grab a coffee and croissant in the nearby town of Maratea. We also looked forward to using the bathroom there and washing our hands. The windy coastal mountain road to Maratea reminded me of Highway 1 in Northern California. The town, built into the side of a mountain, was sharply tiered. I parked the car in a space that felt close to the center, and we zigzagged up stairways, cutting between densely stacked rustic Italian homes. We searched for a central piazza, or any place that sold coffee, but everything looked closed at 7:30am.
With no cafe in sight and no idea where it might be, I asked the first guy we passed.
‘Buon giorno,’ I said.
‘Buon giorno,’ he said.
‘Dove possiamo prendere un cafe?’ I asked, which means something like ‘Where can we get a coffee?’
I’d either made the mistake of sounding like I actually spoke Italian, or the guy didn’t speak any English at all, because he proceeded to ramble off a few fast sentences in Italian. The only word I clearly picked up was ‘scendere,’ which means ‘to go down.’ But for some reason my semi-dyslexic, non-Italian mind translated this as ‘to go up.’ So my girlfriend and I walked up the nearest set of stairs.
‘Grazie! Ciao,’ I said to him.
The man looked at us kinda’ funny as we passed him going the opposite direction he’d advised. The top of those stairs—stairs that looked like any other sidewalk stairs in town—led to a terrace where people were sitting at tables, sipping coffee and eating breakfast. I smiled at Itoro. We’d made it to an open cafe, I thought.
I sat down and Itoro went to check out if there was a menu inside. The view from our table was spectacular: a dramatic mountain valley leading down to the Mediterranean Sea. When she returned to the table she said, “Hey, I think this is a hotel and these people are eating their free breakfast.”
“Did you say free breakfast?” I said, and raised an eyebrow.
Itoro gave me that look that said, ‘Please don’t play out your Chevy Chase, Fletch impersonation fantasies here at my expense. It’ll be embarrassing if we get caught.”
I smiled back at her. It was a confident smile that said, ‘I think we’re getting a free breakfast today, honey.”
And with that non-verbal exchange, we walked inside to the buffet table. While Itoro added only a croissant and yogurt to her plate, I went for my dreams. I decided if I was gonna get run out of town for ripping off a hotel’s breakfast spread, I was gonna go big. I piled it on my plate: Croissant, pastries, fruit, bread, jams, cheeses, and prosciutto. The only obstacle was that the coffee wasn’t in a self-serve pot. Instead, there was a small espresso bar and two baristas. An elegantly dressed woman stood next to the counter with some kind of a list in her hand. I guessed she was a hostess or manager of the hotel, checking off guests’ room numbers as they entered.
Go big or go home, I thought.
“Ciao, Buon Giorno,” I said to the barista.
“Buon giorno,” he said.
“Due (two) cappuccini per favore,” I said.
“Prego,” he said, writing down my order and heading back to the espresso machine.
I waited by the bar with my huge plate in hand, smiling and buon giorno-ing at anyone who passed by, including the well-dressed woman who worked there. I tried to pretend like I belonged, though I felt a bit grimy and greasy faced.
A minute later the barista placed two cappuccinos on a tray on the counter. I reached out for them and started with, “Posso... (I can...)”
“—No, no, please, Signore” he said. “I am at your service. I will bring them to your table.”
I brought my assorted food plate back to the table, the barista trailing me with his cappuccino tray. As he served us, I looked at Itoro and held back laughter. Though un-showered and a bit disheveled, we ate, drank and enjoyed the million-dollar-view—for free.
‘Why are you eating so slow?’ Itoro asked. ‘Hurry up.’
‘Why?’ I said.
‘We should get outta’ here before we get caught.’
‘Let’s just act natural,’ I said. ‘I wanna’ enjoy this.’
And I did. In fact, I think it’s been the best breakfast I’ve had on this entire trip—and not simply because it was free. Booking.com had nothing to do with our early morning feast in Maratea today, but as I sat and sipped and gazed at that sweeping Italian valley, if for only a moment, I felt like a genius.