June 27, 2007

Taste One To Know One

It’s funny the way my appreciation of Italy has changed since I first started going there.

I don’t actually remember how old I was on my first trip to Rome, but I do remember that I flew there on my birthday and had an enormous tantrum because the only food on the plane tasted (to me, at any rate) like it had been marinated in algae bloom. I spent twenty minutes resolutely staring out the window with a pout on my face until my father shamed me into a good mood by having the captain wish me a happy birthday over the PA system (because what sort of reasonable prepubescent can fail to be in a good mood after that?).

Anyway, I must have been about six or seven when I first went to Italy and consequently appreciated the following sorts of things:
1. Going to the park around the corner.

2. Buying Lego models at the toy store across the street.

3. Playing with Lego models at the park around the corner.
I also remember getting a kick out of the fact that the currency symbol for the Lira was the same as the currency symbol for the pound, so I could walk around casually flinging about £25,000 notes (actual value: £10) to an imaginery coterie of servants and sycophants. I’d probably still get a kick out of it, too, thank you very much European Monetary Union.

The first time I went to Sardinia was in 1992, which would have made me eight and a half. I slept in a corridor in a rented holiday house in Alghero, and read the same Hardy Boys book eight times because it was the only English book I had thought to bring with me. (I still remember several details about the plot: the bad guy had a beard and glasses, that may or may not have been an elaborate removeable disguise; hypnotism was somehow involved; and some or perhaps most of the action took place in an ancient Mexican temple. There may also have been a French-Canadian bit player who added little more to the story than several italicised cries of ’Sacre Bleu!’, though in all honesty that could have been from a different Hardy Boys book. I read most of them.)

That trip I appreciated things like:
1. The prickly pear plants growing alongside every road.

2. The bewildering array of postcards and other touristy shlock, in particular a selection of brightly coloured, dried starfish, that had actually, I think, been marinated in algae bloom, and stunk up everything else in my suitcase on the trip back.

3. The flippers I was bought at the start of the trip that allowed me to slide through the water with such speed as to leave all the Italian kids sputtering, confused, in my wake.
Only rarely did I appreciate Italian food during those early visits, with the notable exceptions of pear juice, my step-grandmother’s homemade cookies, and pizza romana with potatoes on top (and this last one largely because it allowed one to eat pizza and french fries simultaneously, which seemed to me like the sort of genius that really did deserve an empire). Of that first trip to Sardinia I remember precisely nothing of the food.

In Rome there were a couple of cafes near the flat, including one fifteen minutes walk up a steep hill, where my dad would routinely drag me in the mornings and again post-siesta. I would sit and drink freshly squeezed orange juice (spremuta to the locals) and find it pleasant enough, though I couldn’t help but wonder why all the adults felt it was worthwile to trek up a steep hill to slurp desparately at a few thimbles-full of espresso twice a day. It seemed oddly unsavoury.

But over this last weekend in Sardinia, the things I appreciated were without a doubt the following:
1. Sardinian pecorino (cheese made from sheep’s milk), and a bewildering assortment of pig meat (sausages, hams, pancetta) that, alas!, cannot be found off the island because of some bizarre pig blight that forbids export (thank you very much, European Union).

2. Gelato, in a wonderous smorgasbord of flavours.

3. Espresso from the village bar, almost syruppy in consistency and served, indeed, in cups that hold only a few, glorious, thimbles-full.
So I wonder what I will appreciate about Italy in another fifteen years; since I seem to trail the older generation pretty closely (and if current trends in Italian nearly-forties are anything to go by), I am guessing clothes in various shades of brown and beige, sleeping for half the afternoon and, of course, speedos.

I’ll be sure to update you all as it happens.

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