Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hyperbole? Perhaps, but maybe it's really THAT good...

(Reflections from Italia)

In March Cosmo and I went to Italy and experienced the trip of a lifetime. I came back determined to write regularly about the people, the food, the wine, the art, the churches, the museums, the countryside, of Cosmo's reconnection to his ancestral roots. I started a bit of a journal and then of course, lapsed. What else is new? One motivation for blogging is that it might just be my vehicle to continue to write in general, but more about Italy in particular. From time to time I'll post a memory from the grandest of the grand travel adventures, starting with this one:

Part of our difficult transition back into the U. S. was this notion that we still can’t seem to shake, that EVERYTHING is better in Italy. I’m pining for the capers that were on the breakfast buffet at the Bernini Palace in Firenze. The yogurt was creamier. The cappuccino was foamier. The wine was smoother. The service was more courteous. The clothes were more elegant. Even American gin tasted better with the zest of an Italian lemon floating in it.

And I know that for as long as I live, I will never, ever experience anything as transcendent as the pizza and wine we had in Napoli. No human interaction, no philosophical insight, no religious rite, has ever made me feel like I was truly “one with the earth” the way that simple meal in an ordinary Neopolitan trattoria made me feel.

This meal: in one microsecond of clarity that might be akin to the seeing your life flash before your eyes in a near-death moment, I swear I could picture the forest where the tree grew that was used to fire the woodstove that baked the flaky, crusty, smoky crust. I am certain I could take you by the hand and lead you to the farm that raised the buffalo from whose milk the mozzarella was made and identify the very blades of grass that she grazed on. I am almost positive I could pick out of a crowd the farmer in Parma who raised the pig who gave its life for the creation of the prosciutto that topped this delectable repast.

And the wine!! I like wine, have drunk more than my share and been exposed to enough tastings to be able to identify certain characteristics. I prefer white to red if I’m just drinking, but with the right food pairings, I appreciate quality reds. I have been privileged to partake in some outstanding samplings that taste so divine they literally take your breath away, and more often than not, they have come with a price tag of three figures. But I also learned from a true wine connoisseur (a man who built and stocked a wine cellar in his basement, a place that you would swear is in Italy itself, replete with climate control and the ID/inventory tags hanging off the necks of the perfectly angled bottles that lined the walls from floor to ceiling) that you don’t have to spend a lot to obtain good wine, nor does spending a lot does ensure that you will get good wine.

Nowhere is this truism better played out than in Italy, and nowhere in our Italian experience was it better exemplified than in the little trattoria in Naples that soothed my soul and my spirit with that memorable fare. The vino di tavula --rosso-- served in a carafe and poured into what we would call juice glasses here in the States. Virtually no bouquet, absolutely no legs, not especially robust or even full bodied, and yet... And yet.

At tastings you learn to identify where in your mouth the taste hits, and how to describe it: front of the palate, back of the throat, etc. Never have I had a wine that I tasted from the tips of my lips all the way to my stomach, and all at once. "Nectar of the gods" is a cliche, but it's the phrase that comes to mind nonetheless.

As with the pizza, I swore I could see the vineyard where these grapes grew, feel the warmth of the sun that ripened them, picture the gentle hills that protected the vines. And in the tasting, I connected with the very soil that nurtured them. Kind of like eating a mushroom, only this wine didn’t taste like a mushroom, it just evoked the same earthy, primal satisfaction. I’ve had some good cabernets that are could be described as going down like velvet ribbons. I can’t describe the sensation that this simple wine created, I just know that I was transported to another dimension, and I’m really not sure I’ll ever have another experience quite like that again.

It compelled me to go to the back and shake the hands of the two young men who had created this feast. I resisted the urge to hug and kiss them both, and if I could have adopted them and taken them and their ovens back home with me, I would have done so in a minute.

A tangential swerve: until eating that meal, I was really not liking Naples at all. Our guide and driver were charming, but the charm ended with them. I was sure we’d be killed in a hideous multivehicle pile-up before we ever got to our hotel. We had been warned by everyone and his mother about being careful of the gypsies, thieves and pickpockets. Our guide insisted we divest ourselves of all jewelry and doodads and to secure our money and purse before entering the streets. The first few shopkeepers we encountered were brusque and indifferent. For the first time since arriving in Italy I was feeling tense and edgy. I wanted to go back to the elegant, refined gentility of Firenze or the confident, cosmopolitan hospitality of Roma and be done with this crude bunch.

And then they put food in front of me.All was forgiven. Let the pickpockets have their way with me. Let the store owners make Brooklynites look like French diplomats. Let the autos collide on the streets. Just keep that pizza coming. And we hadn’t even had the breakfast pastries yet.

Interrogators in time of war have it all wrong. The way to get information from a POW is to first ply him with pizza and wine and pastries from Napoli and then threaten to take it all away. Even John McCain would have cracked in a heartbeat.

When we returned to Rome we talked to some other Americans who had just come from the south. Naples is just a stopover to the Amalfi Coast, they told us. You'd have to be crazy to spend any time there, what with the traffic and the pickpockets and gypsies, they proclaimed.

Aaah, pity; they'll never know what they missed.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Today is my oldest child's 36th birthday. Wherever we've lived, the weather has usually been the same on this date, and the same as I remember it on the day she was born: crisp, sunny, clear blue sky, warm but with a hint that fall is just around the corner.

Fall triggers many emotions and yearnings. I revel in the gorgeous warm days and feel wistful as the sun sets a little earlier each evening. My internal clock is still set to a traditional school year timetable, so I want to start a new project, meaningful and exciting. A mother's heart can't help but reminisce about how quickly the years have passed. It truly doesn't seem like more than three decades since Cosmo and I headed off for the hospital in that big old borrowed Cadillac to embark on the greatest adventure of our lives, without a clue of how unprepared we were to take on the awesome responsibilites that lay ahead for us as parents.

As much as I'd like to think of myself as middle aged, I doubt I'll live to be 112, so it's more likely that I'm in the "autumn of my years," as the song says, and that realization evokes the same urge to slow down the passage of time. Instead of trying to hang on to those passing minutes, I can shift my focus toward my goals of being fully aware of the precious moments and savoring each one; of living purposefully, of being truly grateful in all things, of practicing kindness until it comes naturally.

Then maybe I'd come a step closer to fulfilling all the promises I whispered into the ear of a tiny baby girl on a perfect September day 36 years ago.