Off The Beaten Path:
Loving, Learning, and Leaving Italy
A Not-So-Clandestine Affair with La Dolce Vita
I had fallen in love with the idea of Italy long before I ever set foot in Rome. In fact, I would often joke with an Italian friend that cheese and wine were like my two hands. In return, he would respond that I was, quite possibly, more Italian than he had ever been: after all, I loved my cheese and wine more than any man I have ever been with.
Yet, I remember landing in Rome for the first time, now more than a year ago, and recoiling. Bureaucracy, inefficiency, and general aloofness seemed to be part of a daily lexicon, all in stark contrast to the country I had spent the last six years of my life in. And I remember wondering: had I developed exaggerated expectations of what I actually signed up for?
But as it were, my Italian saga turned out to be far better than what I had imagined in my wildest dreams. I’ve spent a happy year in Italy, wandering aimlessly, and yet feeling more content and satisifed than ever before. It has been a year of happy Thursday nights watching watch street musicians play the cello on centuries-old piazzas; a year of lazy Saturday afternoons reveling in the ruby red of Tuscan sangiovese and Umbrian sagrantino; and a year of quiet Sunday mornings devouring the taste of fresh tagliatelle with funghi porcini.
So, it is only natural that I depart with a love-filled ode to the country that’ll always hold a Pisa my heart (creative puns courtesy see.fong, without whom I’d be deprived of half my lyrical liberties and all my laughter).
That this topic deserves it’s own section should not come as a surprise to anyone who has visited Italy; that I would begin a goodbye note with my gelato experiences should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me.
“You haven’t tasted gelato till you've tried the gelato, Shruthi”, my friends insisted, four days after I landed in Italy. ‘Bah, humbug’, I thought, ‘It was a sunny July in Rome. How could any gelato not be good?’ So I let my friends take me to their gelateria.
After much deliberation (and let’s be real, there were over 30 flavors, and I’m the worst when it comes to any kind of food-based decision-making), I ordered a waffle cone with three scoops of gelato, topped with fresh cream. We settled into a corner table, as my friends stared me down. I could almost hear their thoughts goad me: go on, eat the gelato, and tell us we’re right.
So, deciding to put everyone out of our miseries, I took the first bite of what I've since referred to as life-changing gelato.
My mind was blown away by the immediate assault of fresh, coffee-flavored whipped cream, but I trudged on. My second bite brought in a jumble of nocciola, pistacchio, and oh, the biscotti della nonna (hazelnut, pistacchio, and grandma’s cookie dough): flavors and textures that felt like an explosion of fireworks on my tongue. But I couldn't stop, I wouldn't stop, until I got to the hot, molten chocolate at the bottom of the crunchy cone.
And in that moment of profound clarity, I understood that gelato only came in two types: life-changing gelato or no gelato
If you know me, and you've followed along this far, you have probably already surmised that my love affair with food, and anything food-related, is rather torrid. Of course, cheese is no exception to this rule. My love affair with cheese in Rome began when I first moved to Trastevere, the 13th Rione of Rome (deriving its name from the Latin phrase trans Tiberim, meaning ‘beyond the Tiber’, but I digress).
So, yes, when I moved to Trastevere, a friend, who we fondly refer to as our Canadian Prince, introduced me to a little cheese store, tucked away on a side street, and assured me that once I had shopped there, I would never buy cheese from anywhere else. I took his words at face value, and decided to pick up some fresh cheese as a housewarming present for myself. And boy, I was hooked before you could say formaggi (thank you, T).
The lovely owner soon became a familiar face, and every week since, for 32 weeks, I've gone in religiously to buy my four-person-portions of pecorino, parmigiana, and gorgonzola. And every week, to supplement this cheese diet, I would try a new type I had never tried before. Caciotta di Pienza, stracchino stagionato, bastardo di veneto; the list of cheeses I’d never heard of, but will now sorely miss, was endless.
And I broke from this routine only once.
When I finally returned to the store, after recovering from the flu, I asked the smiling owner for my usual suspects. Humming a tune, he walked around: picking, slicing, packing. I owed him some 63 cents from the previous time I was in the store, and told him to add it to my current bill. But when I got my purse out to pay, he stopped me. “Brava, ragazza. Su la casa, prendete un po riposo!” — it’s on the house, child, you should get some rest.
Italian Granddaughter Status: Unlocked
Now, as the saying goes, where cheese comes along, wine cannot be too far behind. Something like that. Or maybe I made it up, but you get the point.
My interest in wine bloomed when I first tasted that French Bordeaux in London, nearly six years ago now. And since that fateful summer, it has only grown and grown; into an uncontrollable, insatiable monster. So, naturally, arriving in the holy land for wine-lovers (no, my dear French friends, I’m sure you disagree, but lets take that discussion offline), I decided that I would do everything I could to master the art of wine-tasting.
This journey, I also decided, needed to begin with a pilgrimage to Tuscany.
And that was how I found myself on the loopy roads of the Tuscan hillside with a wine-loving companion and a rickety Fiat 500 that could barely accelerate to keep us on the slopes. Blasting an Italian radio station channeling music from the American 60s, we made our way to vineyards in and around Montalcino, Montepulciano, and Siena. We tasted Sangiovese, Chianti, Brunello. And the more I had, the more I wanted.
So much that I went back to soak under the Tuscan sun barely a month later, with an Italian boy from Montefollonico; a boy who befriended me at a lonely tram station on the Tiber.
We wandered through the side streets and back alleys of vineyards. And as we made our way to Firenze, he smuggled extra glasses of wine with his charming smiles, jumped on trees to pick pears and chestnuts for us to eat, and regaled me with tales of the famous, smoky mozzarella of Siena (which, incidentally, I didn't take a particular liking to, sorry Alessio).
And that night, I discovered the distinct pleasure of the Florentine Secret Bakery (capitalization required). Walking past Santa Croce, I complained about my grumbling stomach, only to be silenced by my patient Italian babysitter. He knocked on a random door covered by caged bars. It was 2 AM on a Saturday night; I shivered
But my annoyance morphed into astute attention, as I caught a waft of the most tantalizing aroma — the smell of fresh cornetti, the Italian version of a croissant, as the owner opened the door. After what seemed like a nostalgic conversation between two long-lost friends, barely two minutes later, Alessio had produced a handful of the cornetti I had but smelled moments ago. Returning home, we opened a bottle of Brunello to celebrate.
The next day, I drove back to Rome, temporarily satiated, only to realize that I wasn't satisfied with just tasting wine. I wanted to know that I should drink Sangiovese with my tomato pasta, and Tempranillo with my mushrooms. So, I searched, found, and signed up for a wine instruction course.
Except, it was only taught in Italian; busted
This hardly deserves a qualifier, but I didn't speak a word of Italian other than the occasional ciao and grazie when I first moved to Rome.
I was, however, determined to pick up the language, if only to understand the food experiences that seemed to define the very lifeblood of Italian existence. I also realized, almost immediately, that the best, and perhaps, only, way to learn a foreign language was to begin speaking it.
And thus, my rocky Italian journey began, unsurprisingly perhaps, in a restaurant
It’s worth noting here that I had long suffered from a mortal fear of eating alone at restaurants, and the mental dialogue on advancing my linguistic abilities first surfaced on a rather lonely Tuesday night. But I told myself, to hell with phobias; it wasn't like I had anything better to do that night anyway, so why not give it a shot?
So, I walked over to a neighborhood restaurant recommended by a friend, and mustered the bravest face I possibly could. ‘Posso avere un tavolo per uno, per favore?’, I said, in my best Italian accent
Could I have a table for one, please?
The grandfather gave me an amused half-smile, and soon thereafter, I found myself sitting alone in that quaint restaurant tucked away into residential Trastevere, with no company but for a copy of Middlesex and my broken Italian. But as it usually is with things like this, it turned out to be one of the best things I could have done.
Because, my visits to this restaurant, a restaurant run by three generations of the same family, didn't end that night. And because this family all but adopted me as a wayward child eager to learn their language, if only to communicate my fondness for the cheesy bowls of cacio e pepe (traditional Roman cheese & pepper pasta) — a feeling that could only be explained away as a carnal craving and yet, the purest form of longing for a never-ending childhood.
And soon, my lonely Tuesdays turned into lively Thursdays.
My wine lessons became more sophisticated: I could now explain that a certain Barolo was the most elegant shade of light, transparent red, and ask a bartender if the grapes were fermented in French oak.
My food lessons turned into lessons of laughter: There was endless fun, punctuated with the occasional proclamation of surprise when strangers commented on my ‘rather Roman’ accent!
Grandfathers were inherited; friends were made; meals were shared.
And little by little (piano, piano) — on every solo trip, the glasses of vino della casa (house wine) turned into bottles shared. The cheese bowls of cacio e pepe became crispier and larger. And the flow of conversations pivoted away from a basic understanding of the menu, towards more nuanced subjects — the differences between Roman and Jewish artichokes; the history and martyrdom of Santa Cecilia; my general ineptitude in finishing a full plate of their tiramisu.
But two weeks ago, on a warm Saturday night, eight months after I first set foot there, I bid farewell to this dear restaurant and the family that owned it. During the meal, I told the grandfather with a wistful half-smile, reminiscent of the one he wore during my first visit, that I was returning to America; that my time as a child of their family was about to end with that meal.
Smiling gently, he replied, ‘Cara ragazza, al tavola non si invecchiano’ and brought me a plate of tiramisu and a glass of wine. On the house, as always. And in that moment, it became abundantly clear: this was the Italy that I fell in love with, the Italy I will continue to love long after I was gone.
Because, as nonno said, at the table, with good friends and family, one does not grow old
It would be rather remiss to talk about my year in Italy without talking about personal growth (and as I say this, I realize this article already sounds like some kind of behavioral science textbook). I have been told, and told often, that I have the soul of an ancient person, so much that I often forget that I had just turned twenty four last year.
But this was a year of no return; a year of startling realizations that drove home just how much I had aged since I first moved out of home, if I even knew what, or where, home was anymore.
Surprisingly, not all of them were even connected to the idea of Rome or Italy. Unsurprisingly, they were were all born from the clarity of thought accompanying a sharp disconnect from past life and loved ones; the actions leading to the discovery of new family in foreign countries to fill voids you weren't even aware of.
I’ll get the easy one out of the way first: I knew that saying goodbye would be hard. But what I did not expect was just how hard it would be. Standing at the airport, the past year now feels a turbulent, steamy, love affair in an Italian soap opera. And the more I think about it, the more I am reminded of something John Green wrote on what it means to fall in love. So I’ll quote him completely out of context, and confess.
I fell in love with Rome the way you fall asleep, slowly at first, and then all at once
The fear of social isolation, accentuated by a profound disinterest in what could be considered traditionally female wiles, had led to a long history of male friends. But, against the backdrop of conversations exploring the ideologies of war and peace, of humanitarianism and consumer behavior, of purpose and meaning and cookies and cream, my self-imposed restrictions on social circles changed irrevocably when I moved to Italy.
Because it was in Rome where I finally realized that I did, in fact, revel in the company of certain female friends more than all my male friends
Eyes closed tightly, I lay in a white cylinder, as the MRI machine scanned for aberrations in my vertebra, for early signs of multiple sclerosis. Alone and so terribly frightened, it was in Italy where I felt the first cold wave of fear and claustrophobia grip me, and with it, the realization that I was approaching a point-of-no-return when it came to my recovery mechanisms; that perhaps, it was time to stop prioritizing anything over the concept of good health.
In that moment, I recognized, and perhaps more difficultly so, accepted, that I could no longer walk out of everything with a casual sigh and some battle scars
During a subsequent visit home, I was shocked to see that the family I had immortalized in my mind, was, in fact, very much mortal, and aging more rapidly than I wanted to admit. Hearing a grandmother, mentally assigned to being fifty-five-forever, talk about being hospitalized reminded me that she wouldn't be here forever. Watching my mother break down, knowing she could do nothing to help alleviate the immobility that gripped the left side of my body reminded me that, perhaps, my superhuman parents might be suffering too.
That the excuses underpinning my prioritization of other life experiences were merely cowardly manifestations of a deep-rooted fear of letting go
But, there were friends who made up for the insecurities, and there were always friends. Good and close friends who mean the world.
I flew to New York with a half-broken spine, to give my second wedding toast at a close friend’s reception. I spent hours on the phone with another, discussing the intricacies of graduate school, and the sheer stupidity of our relationships with the boys in our lives. I flew to Houston to celebrate a new phase of my life with another close friend, who will be going to said graduate school with me. But more importantly, perhaps, I came to accept that I had close friends who would fly across the Atlantic, for all of three or four days, or brave the long, cold walk back to a lonely neighborhood, just to turn birth‘day’ celebrations into birth‘week’ celebrations, with or without my permission to do so.
And so, amid the medical emergencies and broken promises, I realized what I already knew: how important it was to appreciate such friends; to make time for the moments I knew I would surely cherish over the years to come.
And so, it was in Italy, where I realized: distance was easily transcended when you wanted to to relish in the company of good and close friends
Loving, Learning, Leaving
So, despite having lived here for just a year, the journey feels so surreal that it might have as well been a figment of my runaway imagination. And as much as I can continue to wax poetic about every street I roamed, every meal I shared, and every friend I made, it might just as well suffice to say that I will fondly recollect my yearlong sojourn in Roma, and carry with me the memories of everything I loved, learned, and left.
I loved my Saturday morning walks to the farmer’s markets at Piazza San Cosimato. I learned about the various types of fresh Roman carciofi, fragola, aranci (artichokes, strawberries, and oranges). I left my insecurities and inhibitions behind, and uncovered a world of opportunities I was simply too blind to see before.
I loved waking up on Sunday mornings, to the sounds of bells chiming at the Basilica di Santa Maria. I learned about the best places to eat suppli from the road workers laying new cobblestones on the street outside. I left warped emotions behind in an attempt to break away from toxic relationships.
Every once in a forgotten Tuesday, I loved to wander aimlessly in new neighborhoods. I learned to identify differences in the smell of cacio e pepe (more peppery along the cobblestoned streets of Trastevere; more cheesy along the once-occupied streets of Garbatella). I left my anger and grief behind and finally began the journey of moving beyond disillusionment.
And paraphrasing my experiences as Gandhi might have, in Rome, for a year, I lived as though I were to die the next day, and learned as though I were to live forever. So I’ll end this goodbye-note-turned-soliloquy, with an Italian version of the same thought; a thought that I will carry with me more than all others in the days to come:
Fill your glass when it’s empty, empty your glass when it’s full; never leave it empty, never leave it full
Arrivederci, Roma. Ti Amo.