Michael and I have shared many travel stories on the blog so far. And also, many stories about food. And stories about travel and food. Today’s post is one such story.
As you know, we’ve both traveled in Italy—never together, which is something we hope to do together sometime in the forseeable future. Any American who’s traveled to Italy knows you always leave a little piece of yourself there when you visit, and you always yearn to go back.
Cheesy, I know.
A rich, flavorful, Asiago cheese.
The first time I went to Italy, it was to study at an opera program—Oberlin in Italy. A fine program where I learned as much about the Italian language and culture as I did about carefully preparing music for performance.
There was one particular event where I learned about both.
As I’ve learned in going to several musical study-abroad programs, it is necessary to have local residents to coordinate space, events, housing, travel, etc. on the other side of the world. It is especially difficult to accomplish this in Italy, where new things (other than fashion) are looked at quizzically.
Oberlin in Italy was an established program, and didn’t seem to have much difficulty in organization, largely due to a man who’d helped coordinate the program on the Italian side for years.
The year I attended the program, he had recently passed away. Even as someone new, I could see in the instructors that he had been very important and dear to them.
So that year we sang a memorial concert at his church for his family and friends. It was an EVENT. By that, I mean that it was well attended, with the kind of audience that as a performer, you always wish you could have—wonderfully enthusiastic about every piece of music performed.
And they sang along.
I mean, it’s Italy.
And if you’re a singer, and you’ve never sung “Va, pensiero” and the audience stands up and sings it too, and you can feel the air vibrating with the sound of hundreds of voices in the chorus of the Hebrew slaves, I’m convinced you’ve not really lived. I hope that you have this experience in your future.
So the concert went well. And we were invited to the church basement (but not the sub-basement, where the crypt was—seriously) for a meal.
There were long tables spread out, and seating on benches on either side of the table. Where each person was to sit were three bottles of wine, which it was assumed that two people would share.
I went through the line for food, with Italian grandmothers piling helpings onto my plate. I sat down and ate one of the best meals I’ve had to this day. Fish from the nearby Adriatic Sea, vegetables, roasted meat—any Italian countryside food you could think of.
But what I really cared about were the desserts.
I saw them coming in, and was excited to finish my meal and eat dessert. This is nothing new, and anyone who knows me knows that my sweet tooth is someday going to bite me in the [expletive deleted] and I’m going to have rotten teeth and end up in a diabetic coma (by the way, I’m eating Oreos as I write this post).
So I head to the dessert table and reach my hand for a plate, only to be smacked with a large, arthritic hand.
I turned to look at the person attached to the hand, and saw a 4’ 9” Italian grandmother, who was shaped a bit like a dumpling, wearing a brightly colored floral dress she’d probably had since1964.
“No!” she yelled. “Dopo questo…”
And handed me another heaping plate of food.
She stared at me with the same intensity that my dad used when we brought home boys in high school. I was instantly terrified of a woman shorter than me who was probably in her 70s.
I marched back to the table and sat, still feeling her eyes boring through the back of my head.
Friends at the table may have said something like, “I thought you were going to get dessert…” but I didn’t really hear them.
Because. I. Was. Determined. To. Eat. Sweet. Things.
Even if it meant that I had to undo the top button of my pants and eat like I do on Thanksgiving.
And so I finished a second plate of food. Luckily, I was still young enough that I had the metabolism of a hummingbird (she sighs, eating a fourth Oreo).
Nonna must have been watching, because within seconds of finishing the last bite of my plate, a dessert was thrust in front of me, and the empty plate disappeared like it belonged to David Copperfield.
I could only see her back as she walked away, but I knew she was smiling, because she’d gotten the skinny girl to eat. And eat. And eat. And eat.
I didn’t eat much the next day—just more cookies dipped in Nutella and half a banana, also dipped in Nutella. I didn’t really need to eat much more.
And though I
sometimes often still eat dessert before my meals, I always feel a little bit guilty.
And check over my shoulder for an Italian grandmother.