Priorities and objectives- the essence of every travel plan. During the many trips I took with my family, the patriarchs around us would insist on seeing every sight there was to see because of a question they perceived from their social circle, “You went all the way to abc and didn’t see xyz, such a shame?”. It was another thing that by the time we were done, we were tired enough to want another vacation. The sum total of these experiences made me a solo traveller. While my leisure trips have been few and far between, whenever I did travel on business, I spent little or no time sightseeing preferring instead to rest and try the local cuisines.
So as a Europe trip came to be planned for a conference, I was certain that I wouldn’t deviate from my usual approach to travel. Instead I remembered a show I used to watch from my childhood on Discover channel. This show focused on children in various countries as they practice for a dance they would perform at a local festival. Another show focused on the food habits of people around the world, told through the eyes of a child in a local family. I wanted that experience and I would either travel for that or not travel at all.
See I am not judging the ones who do go to the local tourist spots. Furthermore, I am not undermining the beauty or the significance of the local tourist spots. But the pragmatist in me doesn’t see value in standing in a long cue for a long time and being able to see the place thereafter when my ankles and feet are about to give away. Travel to me is stepping out of my comfort zone, trying the local food, meeting the local people and getting to see the place that is not designed, molded and tailored to meet the stereotypical expectations of foreign tourists.
Italy was an absolutely stunning experience that way. I was lucky because my friend, was coincidentally visiting his home town in Italy around the same time and he offered to show me around. To give you a background- this friend happens to be a member of the niche and elite community of space political scientists. While I have always known him to be exceptionally brilliant, learned and with insights of my own country that I wouldn’t know, this time I saw the Tuscan in him. Warm, friendly, hospitable, great sense of humour and exceptionally humble. If anything, meeting him and his family was perhaps the highlight in itself.
But it certainly wasn’t the last. Let me begin with the food. The pizza and the pastas were of course lovely and authentic- very different from the Italian food in India. But more importantly, I discovered that Italians like Indians don’t see food as just means of sustenance. Community and family experiences are defined around meals. Neither is to be hurried nor is it to be neglected. A typical get together there involves elaborate meals, usually spread across several courses- starting from the appetizers to pasta to the main course to the salads and the post meal liquor. Even smaller day to day meals are prepared with much attention and dedication. The food is not just the product of an effort, but the product of emotions. The objective of a meal is not just nutrition, but camaraderie, friendships and to facilitate conversation. The Italian doesn’t just eat, she lives through her food. She doesn’t merely value her meals, but respects it. In other words- like in India, the meal is a social catalyst and a community bond.
Nothing demonstrated it better than the very first dinner of pasta, salad and dessert my friend, his partner and their 4 year old son hosted for us. Rich with flavours, yet mild on heat, the pasta was made with herbs whose names I regrettably don’t remember and cooked firmly yet delicate enough to melt in one’s mouth. Each and every morsel of that pasta left an experience to the senses- the appearance of the white pasta with the green herbs, the feel of how firm and how resolute it was, the fragrance it emitted and at least (but certainly not the very least), the unbelievable flavour it released with every bite I took. The salad, the dessert and the finger food in the meal were no doubt just as thrilling if not more. But after that meal of pasta, I think I will cry every time I taste the local pasta in India.
Italian breakfast options are many. But I can stereotype and perhaps classify them into principal categories- sweet and savory. Having a little bit of a sweet tooth for breakfast, I went with the former category. Most of what I tried involved a pastry with cream filling. Either the cream filling had vanilla or chocolate flavouring. But what stood out was just how moist the cream was and just how delicate its pastry covering was. Like steel through butter, each bite was easy considering how delicate the pastry was. But make no mistake, each bite was rewarding with a sensual delight. I felt different emotions after each bite, ending with profound sorrow at having finished what I had set out to experience. As I reflect on those breakfast meals, I have only one sentence to say, “I have truly lived my life”.
The beverage accompaniments were no doubt fantastic. But to me the discovery was Prosecco. Italy’s answer to Champagne, Prosecco packs flavour and finesse to give character to the overall food experience. I don’t drink to get high. But be it with beer or scotch, its the overall feeling of my nerves freeing up that I enjoy with the single pint of beer or a small helping of scotch. However, with Prosecco, the emotion I felt was celebration. One falls in love with the world with every sip of it.
But behind every delightful meal, there are delightful people. Nothing represented this better than Tuscanny. As we met the friends and family of my friend here, we realised that the many wonderful experiences that the meals inspire are in turn inspired by the goodness, warmth and hospitality of the people behind it. Like in India, my friend was reprimanded by his friends for not taking me to their farm or to the place they liked. Mention something that you liked and they would gift you that right away. While I felt crippled and even guilty for being unable to speak their language, the Tuscans welcomed me into their lives and treated me as their own.
I can go on and on about Tuscanny, its people and their food. But neither do I have the words to convey my gratitude nor do my readers have the patience to wait through such long posts. So let me simply just conclude by saying this- Ti Amo Italy 🙂