Gabriela Zetehaku shares the blissful moments living in Italy, surrounded by locals and delicious cheese.
“The king of the cheese!” the Italian twins would say with amiable eyes, their hands offering me a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano. Saturdays, 10 a.m., Piazza Fontanesi — it was like this every week. The open market was always crowded, full of elderly men and women with their eco-friendly bags and white hair, speaking loudly in Italian with graceful gestures. The fruits and vegetables smiled at me with their tenderness. The bottles of wine, honey, and jam begged me to take them home. The flowers seemed to sing happy songs. And although I was tempted to dance with all those goodies, my heart was always faithful to the twins and their cheese stall.
I moved from Brazil to Italy in January 2018 to do an exchange program in Reggio Emilia, a small comune in the region of Emilia Romagna. Its modest size composed the elegance and beauty of the city, and, rambling through my most beautiful reminiscences, I vividly remember the joy of walking through the cobblestone streets and by the antique houses. I can still smell the mellow scent of spring when the bare trees started growing dazzling flowers, gently dropping while I delved into every inch of the city with a copetta of gelato freezing my fingers. Orange buildings and flowers accompanied my daily quest to explore Reggio, and I listened to Italian songs while trying to grasp every detail of that place. Bookstores, parks, gelaterias, and cafés composed the wonderfulness of Reggio Emilia, but my favorite shelter was doubtless the open market. It became the refuge for a solitary dreamer in a distant country.
Although I went there every week, I could never lose the enchantment for that spectacle of colors and tastes. The vivacity of the Italian voices would embrace me while I pressed my empty bag to my chest, ready to spend the few euros I’d saved during the week at the cheese stall. Then I would linger in line for many minutes (Italians like to take their time), absorbed by the tranquility of the wait. I enjoyed watching the twins give samples of their products to the locals who knew them so well. I can trace back every inch of those cordial, happy smiles, the owners’ white aprons, and the stand full of marvelous, different kinds of cheese. Sometimes they would give sparkling wine to everyone. Why? To celebrate life, of course. The magical familiarity of these scenes fills me with a gentle warmth. It is as if the twins knew a secret that the rest of the world did not, and the happiness of life was hidden behind the simplicity of an open market and its cheese.
The part of the city that hosted this spectacle every week was Piazza Fontanesi. I loved this place wholeheartedly. I loved it when the sun would bathe my skin while I read a book on a wood bench, watching the Italian mammas with their kids running throughout the square. I loved it when the bench was covered with snow and naked trees with timid branches. I loved it when spring came and leaves grew on the top of those branches (and I also loved how surprisingly quickly that change happened). Friday nights in the Piazza were absorbing and mysterious, as if the Piazza were holding the spirit of youth behind a sip of Hugo Spritz. I was amazed how it would transform into a guardian the next day, looking after the farmers and owners of the beautiful stalls on Saturday mornings. Piazza Fontanesi seemed to be alive, breathing and observing the entire show with its bright, glazing eyes, making sure that the humanity of that little place remained protected from the violence in the rest of the world.
Pecorino, Stracchino, Toma di Gressoney … Every week a new story was introduced to my palate, along with a small piece of Parmigiano Reggiano. That’s the thing about the “king of the cheese” — even if you eat the same type of cheese numerous times, the taste would always change. The flavor and texture of it would melt into my mouth in different ways. Sometimes I could feel the grains mixing themselves, giving a magical sensation to my taste buds. Other times, I swear I could understand the scene of synesthesia in the movie Ratatouille. Sometimes it asked me to perform a duet with jam or grapes or to be accompanied by a glass of wine. You had to respect the king’s order, and then it would introduce you to the wonders of a new universe.
The last thing I loved was the piece that connects the sensitivity of a dreamer in a foreign land to a farmer’s heart. A single detail in a modest event in the routine of the Reggiani. A tiny piece of art that melts onto your tongue with great splendor. An element that composes the combination of flowers and honey, Italian mutterings, and fruity smells at Piazza Fontanesi. The spark of joy in the heart of a shy Brazilian far from home. The king of cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano.