Italy is very much a foreign country

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Who doesn't love the Italy of postcards? Perhaps you dream of a raven-haired girl wearing sunglasses and riding a Vespa down a narrow stone street. Or maybe you think of a flock of sheep racing across a road that was engineered 2,000-years ago. Possibly, you dream of the Vatican's majestic shrines.

And if this picturesque Italy is the Italy you're planning to visit soon, you can submit any trip-planning questions you may have right now by clicking here. Our Rome-based expert on Italy, Christopher Winner, will provide answers at at Noon Eastern next Tuesday.

But don't take the postcard pictures of Italy at face value. Or else you might be surprised when you get a glimpse of the real Italy.

Case in point, #1: The fashion designer Valentino is celebrating his fashion house's 45th anniversary with an unusual exhibit. Next to a large white marble altar erected in 9 B.C., known as the Ara Pacis, Valentino has staged about 200 female mannequins. They're arranged in prayerful poses, wearing his designer clothes in red and black.

To understand how, well, un-American this event is, consider what it would be like if the Ford Motor Company showcased some of its vintage automobiles inside the Lincoln Memorial.

But in Italy, this mixing of the state's most precious cultural treasures and a modern marketing campaign is roundly applauded. Even the president of Italy and the mayor of Rome visited the exhibit.

Whatever you think of the event, the Ara Pacis--with or without the Valentino exhibit--is one of Rome's coolest new attractions, as Budget Travel reported in this story.

[If you want to learn more about the Valentino exhibit, read the AP story at the International Herald-Tribune website.]

This month, there's another--and less flattering--example of how Italy can feel foreign to American sensibilities.

For more than 60 days now, there has been no garbage pick-up in the southern province of Naples and in the southern region of Campania. The reason is a worker's strike. Strikes, of course, are one of Italy's national pastimes.

Huge piles of trash lie uncollected. Some desperate residents are setting trash piles on fire, occasionally creating toxic clouds. Americans are being advised by authorities to avoid these areas this summer.

Don't worry too much, though. Trash is being collected properly where U.S. tourists usually visit in the North.

Still, the images of trash piled up in the street reminds us of an Italy we often forget about, an Italy beyond the Tuscan sun.

Consider Tuscany, the ultimate image of Italy in most American's minds. The journalist Beppe Severgnini writes:

Tuscany is an ancient, literary setting. It risks being perceived as a sort of Nativity scene, with statuettes of picturesque little Tuscans, busy doing this and that, and visitors, like the three kings, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Especially gold, but cash and all major credit cards are also welcome.

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