I wake up much later than I had planned on my last day in Italy. It is my first time ever outside of North America, and I am on the homestretch of my first real taste of travel in almost ten years. I commit to opening my eyes and see that Will, who will be my traveling companion from Florence to Milan, has already placed the last of his belongings neatly in his pack. I’m groggy from the previous night’s debauchery, from which I retired just in time to avoid a stolen life-sized Santa and the chase that ensued. I’m achy from sleeping on the wafer thin, twin-sized mattress of my hostel cot and, as is typical after a night of drinking, I’m famished. I take a quick, cold shower, and then Will, a seasoned backpacker, coaches me through the process of leaving behind the clothing, books and shoes necessary to make room for things European that I have accumulated… and so I won’t be quite so wobbly.
I have been freeloading my way around Western Europe for five weeks, staying in homes of people who I had met via hospitality exchange websites in order to reserve most of my budget for splurges: namely, food. I come from a sophisticated breed of gluttony, and most of my strongest childhood memories are defined by the meals that augmented them. There were times during my youth where my parents were barely scraping by, yet they brought me along to fine restaurants and encouraged me to order whatever my “big eyes” found appealing on the menu. They were grateful I never really did like lobster.
Appreciation of good food is so deeply woven into my fabric that I knew I could never do something as big as my first trip to Europe without really doing it. Perhaps it’s why I waited till thirty to wet my feet. I’m just not the kind to stand on the shore and not jump in. And how can you truly experience a milieu without tasting it?
My routine, up to that point, had been to hit the local supermarket upon arrival in a city and stock up on local foods. I packed bagged lunches for most days, and prepared at least one elaborate dinner for each of my hosts. I was very selective about what I treated myself to. In Brussels, my monies went to mussels and Chimay; in Paris, to Chablis, Escargot and Brie; in Amsterdam… well, we’ll keep that in Amsterdam. In Rome, Mozzarella di Buffalo was my focal point. Perugian chocolate and Montefalco wine sucked up their share of my dwindling funds.
When it came to food, Italy was a whole other animal. In other countries, while their native cuisines dominated the restaurant scene, there were other options. You could locate a Chinese take-out in France, or a Falaffel joint in Holland. In Italy, there is only Italian food. I offered to cook a meal for Andrea, a filmmaker whose couch I would be crashing on in Rome. After my long day of exploring the inexhaustible outdoor museum of a city, I found that even the markets carried only indigenous foods. Although I was elated at the ingredients I had at my disposal and quite confident in my grasp of Italian cuisine, I cringed at the thought of any comparisons Andrea might make. But I stuck with what I knew, cooked my heart out and any anxiety I had was quelled by his mix of silence and contented groans.
“How do you know how to cook like that?” he asked after he’d practically licked the plate.
“I’m a born and bred New Yorker,” I replied. “I’ve been eating good Italian food since I was in the womb.”
As I made my way through Italy, each meal became a work of art. Breakfast was my only meal that never varied, as you can’t really top starting your day by biting into a croissant and having warm nutella ooze onto your tongue. Upon arrival at my hostel in Florence, I stocked “my” drawer of the fridge in and “my” shelf in the communal kitchen with crisp arugula, gorgeous tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil infused olive oil, crusty bread, big jugs of Tuscan wine and a jar of roasted peppers. As I unloaded my grocery bag, I noticed that the other guests, mostly Canadian and American students, had loaded up on generic brand packaged foods. I was appalled. Who are these people? Don’t they know they’re in Italy?
On my trip thus far, I had only stayed in people’s homes, and had become accustomed to hanging with the locals. Europeans have a deep respect for food, so I was always in my element, if not humbled by people who would be revolted by the thought of eating just for sustenance – or not eating for the sake of vanity – or missing a meal to a business call. I immediately knew what I had to do: latch myself onto the people who worked at the hostel.
As it turned out, Nino and Simon were more than willing to show me their Florence… its underbelly. Simon was a self-proclaimed chef, and he let me tag along on his excursion to the massive market next to the Duomo, packed two stories high with food stalls proffering fresh produce, handmade pastas and cured meats. If I were a guy, I would’ve had a hard-on. That morning, cognac and hashish got added to my pastry and espresso breakfast.
After eating Simon’s okay-at-best meal off of the cigarette butt and dog hair covered kitchen table in his apartment, I realized I should probably pry myself away from these environs before I missed Florence altogether. I mean, I love grit, but not as a trade in for The Boboli Gardens and The Uffizi Gallery.
So I sucked it up and did the tourist thing with my dorm mates at the David Inn. And it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was kind of nice to take in a monumental piece of artwork and have someone to discuss it with. They were all a little too budget conscious too spring for any of the cheap, abundant wine, so I bought some more and shared it. I didn’t offer up any of my crusty bread, as I have an almost dog-like territoriality about food. So I just enjoyed the flickers of envy in their eyes as I ate my caprese salads in the hostel kitchen, licking my lips for extra effect.
By the fourth of my six days in Florence, I was ready for my big meal out. I could’ve dined out solo, just as I had been doing… but a big Italian meal alone just wouldn’t be right. The perfect Italian dining experience needs a little love. It requires hands in other people’s plates. It entails talking with mouths full, elbow rubbing, eye contact with someone tasting what you’re tasting.
It took me an entire afternoon of half lecturing, half whining to convince my new cohorts that a proper Steak Florentine really was necessary. I had wrangled up six reluctant backpackers, promising them no more than a twenty-euro meal. We were just getting ready to leave when Will showed up.
He was about my age, dressed simply, but well. With a quick “what’s up” he sat down in a corner of the room and began to unpack his necessities. Knowing the sluggishness of Italian trains, I suspected he must be a man in need of a meal. Eager to spread the food love, I asked him if he wanted to join us for dinner.
“Hell yeah. Just let me wash up.”
From that moment on, it was as if Will and I had become chaperones on a class trip. Neither of us had been to Florence before, but we walked ahead of the group with conviction and perused menus with critical eyes. We finally agreed on a tourist-trappy spot that offered a three-course meal with wine for eighteen euros.
Will and I guided the ordering process and watched proudly as our protégées oohed and ahhed, sopping up sauces with bread. However, we were both aware that this meal, as far as Italy was concerned, was child’s play. As we walked slowly back over the Ponte Vecchio, with, but separate from, the rest of the group, Will whispered to me, “We can do better. Tomorrow night we’ll find a really good place and go to town.” Our friendship was a done deal, sealed with marinara sauce.
After spending the day apart – Will had been traveling for quite some time and had to attend to life management stuff and I had some watercolors I needed to play with – we met up for a sunset at the Michelangelo Piazzella. Our life stories unraveled with the sky’s light, words and laughter spilling forth with ease. Our perspectives on almost everything were uncannily similar. Then, the conversation started to go “there,” and it came time to disclose my boyfriend of nearly two years, Gregg, who was to meet me in Barcelona, my next and last city. As the cosmos would have it, Will was also headed to Barcelona. We were both leaving out of Milan; he by train and me by air, and we had the entire next day to get there.
We went to freshen up at the hostel and ask Nino for directions to his cousin’s restaurant. Were met in our room with shouts of recognition from a blustering blonde Aussie named Richie and Danny, a brooding Mexican-American filmmaker. Will had met them in a hostel in Rome several days before and based on the slaps on the backs and guilty snickers, I assumed they had done some drinking together.
And then there were four.
We stuffed our faces and probably made the restaurant doubt their all you can drink wine policy, then we hit the nearest piazza and fed each other gelato. Then came the bar with one euro shots, where Will and I decided on an eight thirty departure to Pisa. I’ve masqueraded as ‘one of the guys’ for long enough to know to get out when night has peaked. So I ducked out just before aforementioned Santa incident and now here I was, disoriented and lethargic, yet knowing the early start would be worth the extra time spent in Will’s company.
My repack cuts into our time, and we have to jet to the station. Will makes fun of the bounce the backpack adds to my walk and I fix his tucked in pant leg. He is beginning to look a lot like trouble for my already deteriorating relationship. We hustle into the Stazione Santa Maria Novella with just enough time left over after we buy our tickets to grab some food for the train.
We both spot it at the same time. We lock eyes and look away, guilt washing over us both. This is the kind of epicurean crime that neither Will nor I would normally commit, yet we are drawn forward. We hang our heads to avoid being seen and traverse the marble between the ticket machine and those dubious golden arches.
As we stand in line, we whisper a pact to never disclose to anyone that we so much as set foot in this retched place. We order OJ’s, coffees and Sausage Egg McMuffins, then race to the platform to find the track empty. There is a message on the departure board next to our train time that simply reads: REPRESSO. Overconfident in our translation skills, we assume this means delayed, and we plop down next to our packs. By this time, our hunger outweighs our shame and we rapaciously unwrap our sandwiches and bite down. Will’s face almost reflects my own disgust. I chew slowly; swallow reluctantly.
“What kind of meat is this?”
Will simply shrugs, that ‘whatever’ type of shrug that only guys are capable of, and then quickly devours the rest of his sandwich. I, on the other hand, can only manage to get through two more bites of what is, perhaps, the vilest thing I have ever tasted.
An hour passes and the next train to Pisa is also ‘represso,’ and we discover that this means ‘cancelled.’ We poke our fingers around on a map for a few minutes and come up with Bologna. The train leaves in four minutes. We bolt to the platform, tickets to the wrong destination in hand. Will whips out a little broken Italian and a little more of his unadulterated charm and talks us onto the train for no extra charge.
The ride is quick and we make use of it well, arrive in Bologna another three years into our friendship. The weather is fantastic and the quaint little city welcomes us with open arms and a giant flea market. I do a little dance inside until I remember that unless you’ve got a ring on your finger, it’s not that easy to rope an American guy into browsing the racks. But give him a blue ribbon, cause it turns out my boy likes to shop. Will is in the market for a snakeskin belt and a pair of red sneakers; me, for anything under thirty euros that looks like it belongs in my world. We find none of the above and head to the city center.
We come upon the open square, framed by outdoor cafes. The cityscape is punctuated by two buildings that are humbly reminiscent of the ones recently robbed from the cityscape in my hometown. We wander past the terracotta archways and aesthetically wonderful buildings that line the shadowy streets, both entranced by the play of sunlight on the rich colors. We pick a spot, I share my art supplies and Will and I experience something that rarely exists between close friends, let alone practical strangers: a shared, comfortable silence, which lasts until it is broken by the grumbling of our stomachs.
Now here’s a pickle. Two foodish, indecisive people coming down from bad McDonalds, with only two meals left in Italia, trying to pick one of the gazillion cute little cafes we’ve passed. We hastily settle at a table on an outdoor terrace. A waiter greets us as we open the menu – way out of our budget. We apologize and get up, walk around the square several times and settle on another, more affordable, place. We order drinks and study the menu, and then the food arrives at a neighboring table. “Bullshit tourist food,” we agree. We apologize to yet another server, pay for our drinks and exit the café.
By this time we are so hungry that our standards slide from snobbish to sensible, and we find an indoor, cafeteria-style joint that looks promising. We both order the spaghetti bolognaise and the house red wine on tap. It’s not until we’re halfway through our meal that we glance up at each other and shrug. The flavor of the sauce is way off, the bread is stale and the wine is crap. We are not as disappointed in the food as we are in ourselves.
We fill our train ride to Milan with diatribes on our favorite films, our funniest travel stories and endorsements of books that the other absolutely must read. We create playlists on our iPods and exchange headsets, write down all of our crucial contact information. We promise to hang out in Barcelona, and I assure Will that he and my beau will hit it off. The train compartment fills with a different breed of shared silence, one that is bloated with sadness, that toys with the idea of alternate realities, with ‘what ifs.’
We have less than an hour to kill in Milan before Will’s train departs. We’re both aching for good food and we decide that, with our track record, it’s best not to take any chances. We enter a nearby supermarket and purchase fresh rolls, an avocado, a ripe tomato, a hunk of smoked scamorza cheese and a bottle of cheap wine. While looking for a spot outdoors to tackle our makeshift meal, we get a whiff of sauce from a small pizza stand and buy a slice to share.
With forty minutes left, we find a bench outside the station, inhale the pizza, pop open the wine and slug it directly from the bottle. We realize we have forgotten one crucial item… a plastic knife. Will, ever the boy scout, produces a Swiss army knife from his bag, and by the time we finish making our sandwiches, our hands are slathered in green mush. As we hunker down over our pizza box table and bite down, the wind kicks up about five notches, blowing apart the windshield of a Vespa parked nearby. We laugh our faces off as we dodge glass, pieces of tomato and breadcrumbs flying from our mouths, causing us to laugh even harder. It is here that we finally have that food moment… the kind you’d normally have in a four star eatery. That intense eye contact that says, “there are no words to acknowledge how good this is.”
Although we are to meet again in two days, we both struggle to hold back tears when it’s time for Will to board his train. Our love affair, in which we have substituted foreplay with appetizers and sex with entrees, has reached its conclusion. As I turn and walk away, the tears start to flow, and I glance back to see that Will’s eyes have also grown wet and puffy.
Gregg and I do meet up with Will in Barcelona. The boys get along famously and Gregg, oblivious to any of the quick, mournful glances exchanged between Will and I, offers to treat us all to a proper meal. As we slurp oysters, sip Rioja and scarf down tapas, I wonder how the finest meal I’ve had in six weeks could possibly pale in comparison to a sloppy sandwich on a park bench.