Sunday, October 7, 2012

Homesick - Nostalgia Canaglia

I used to think of me as someone with very low standards in food. When I was in London, I used to eat at cheap chinese restaurants and, unlike most Italians I knew, I never complained about having to eat a baked potato stuffed with beans for lunch. I found rather pathetic the Italians who were going back to Italy after living in London for only six months, only because they didn't like the food there. 

We are back in Boston. We have been back for a week now and I already feel homesick. Perhaps it's the rain, the sore throat I caught on the plane, the hormones that are driving me crazy, or simply just my memories of Italy, still fresh in my mind. I don't know. That strange feeling of being far from home is back, gnawing me.

In Turin, there was a tiny market close to our rented apartment. Basically, to the eyes of the locals, it was the dumpy market without the butcher one would go to as a single person to buy few things to cook something very basic. On the contrary, to my eyes, that tiny market was the heavenly place where I could find everything I could possibly need. From fresh prosciutto, tomatoes bursting into red juice, juicy prunes to even things like insalata capricciosa, gnocchi alla romana, vitello tonnato, zucchini in carpione and lasagna - you name it -, dishes that my mother makes, believe it or not, with no difference in taste. In that tiny market, I could find the light friable cookies made solely with butter, sugar and eggs. I could find fresh plain crackers that didn't taste of card box. The chicken stock tasted of chicken, not of hundreds of spices clashing against each other. Everything looked and smelled real. I was in heaven.

On my last day in Italy, I went to that tiny market for the last time. I needed to buy a few things to take home. I was looking at the fresh ravioli and at other carefully prepared dishes, through the clean shining window, when tears started falling down my face.

These were the thoughts that were going through my mind. For one whole year, I will not see all this. For twelve long months, I will have to spend so much money to buy specialty food that is old (because it has been imported) and tastes bad. Veal will not burst into blood when I'll be cooking it. It will look like a dead shoe sole. I will have to explain to people why I am not willing to reheat breaded veal. I will be walking for many blocks without a single chance to stop and find ice cream made with real fruit or simply a piece of fresh, soft, plain bread. I will find myself wondering why my pasta is overcooked and why on earth I have to dump olive oil in the water while I am boiling pasta!

For quite a while, I will not find food like this at street fairs.

I will struggle to find a place that can serve me a simple (but fresh) lunch for less than ten dollars. In Turin, I was served pasta with sauce made with real tomatoes (not pizza sauce), together with a caraffa of local wine, fresh bread rolls and fruit salad. Eight euros, service included!

Not to mention the winter street markets, filled with fruit, vegetables, meat and fish of far superior quality than what I can find in the most expensive grocery stores in Boston. All these will soon become sweet, long distant, memories. 

I will stop hearing old women greeting the man selling fruit with phrases like this: "Sergio, quanto eri bello! Ti ricordo ancora nella pancia di tua mamma! E poi mentre le tiravi la gonna per farti dare la pappa!" (Sergio, my dear, how good looking you were! I still remember you in your mother's tummy! And then, where you were pulling her skirt to get her to go cook you lunch!)

Nor I will overhear two moms on the bus discussing what type of meat they feed their children or whether spezzatino with peas tastes better than spezzatino with carrots and potatoes, when you finish it off by eating all the sauce with a piece of bread. And, for long time, I will not have the chance to stop, enchanted, in front of a local shop owner cleaning the shop window, early in the morning. I will not have a long one hour and a half break to eat, while waiting for the local businesses to open. At the exit of the pre-school,  I will not see a large posting on the noticeboard with detailed information about how much each child has eaten for lunch.

Forget all that for a while. I will soon be in a different world. I will soon have to go to three supermarkets to find few "fresh" ingredients in between aisles filled with pre-packaged food. Many times I will have to resign to the fact that in Greater Boston, even at posh restaurants, they serve burgers and that whatever I order I will always get the fries or chips dipped in artificial sauces as a side, not the default Italian roasted potatoes. I will have to drink cappuccino instead of coffee outside the house, so that the milk foam and the cocoa powder can cover the taste of the bad coffee. I will have to stop the waiter with a loud "excuse me" to avoid receiving a 0.6 liter pint of water, filled with ice in January. And I will be so excited when I will finally be able to taste fruit in ice cream in July, instead of cheap candies. I will feel emotional from simply finding a place where to eat which doesn't upset my stomach or a street market that sells tomatoes and green beans in early June. Finally, I will try not to roll my eyes when the two moms on the bus will be offering Golden Fish or Cheerios to their two-three year old children for lunch in any month of the year, while they are waiting for their next treat: peanut butter sandwich with jelly.

And I will soon have to figure out how to give my three year old food that can stay in a thermos for five hours. Yes, five hours.

Sure you do, if you have no other choice!

However, there is another side of the coin, which is easy to forget when one is far from home. Back in Boston, I don't have to put steal bars on all doors each time I leave the house to stop the kid who lives next door from stealing my laptop, nor I have to stay in the car when it is not locked so that my purse will not be snatched. I can feed Tronk whatever I want in restaurants without worrying about what people think. I don't have to find a scarf that matches with my purse before a meeting with a family friend. Nor I have to worry that I am wearing cheap sunglasses. I can wear the worse clothes I have and still be respected. I don't have to hear those British jokes about how emotional the Italians are. I no longer have to face the challenge of keeping Tronk away from the hole of a dirty Italian toilet. And above all, I don't have to hear over and over again that my country is falling apart, that yet another old man is having an affair with a younger woman, that unemployment has reached the highest peak in history, that the people with a high salary don't pay the taxes and that the bus drivers, once again, are on strike.

So, go away nostalgia! We are off to go pick up leaves. Probably the most colorful in America. Then we will have lunch and it will be fresh.

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