Due to my impending trip to my study abroad program’s offices to be trained in all things Peer Mentor-y, I’ve had my time in Florence on the brain quite a bit lately.
Ok, that’s a lie, I think about my 3.5 months on the greatest city on earth on a
hourly daily basis. But roll with me on this one.
I thought I would compile a definitive list – according to me, at least – of the absolute must-dos while abroad…and the other stuff that if you somehow fail to fit in to your packed, globe-trekking schedule, you won’t be in tears about once you’re home. And then I started typing the first item on my list….and it became a post in and of itself. If you haven’t guessed already, it’s about food.
You had to have seen that one coming. Yes, number one for me is *drum roll*…food. I know you’re sitting there saying “well duh, this coming from the food writer wannabe/culinary-school-student-to-be.” But hear me out.
Well, wipe that drool off the keyboard and then hear me out.
Food is a pretty important part of experiencing a culture. And by pretty important, I’m talking in the Top 3.
It usually goes by unnoticed, and perhaps that’s as it should be, but the way one goes about eating has a lot to do with his/her culture. Why, for example, are there millions of take-out & delivery services available from restaurants in the U.S.? Because we the people keep up a go-go-go lifestyle, and convenience is often a top priority. We may enjoy a PB&J sandwich, but it’s probably while also replying to 50 emails, holding a conference call, and/or making plans with friends concerning what to play during recess in a couple minutes. Further more, the ubiquitous PB&J – arguably a truly ‘American’ recipe – is ideal because it’s cheap & quick to prepare.
On the other hand, we have bella Italia, where places to dine specifically and exclusively for lunch abound. Their hours are usually somewhere between 11 & 2, give or take, but this is not to cater to a wide variety of schedules – it is so for people to enjoy a 2 hour lunch. Unlike the U.S.of A., where food accompanies conversation – and the quicker, the better – the conversation accompanies the food in Italy, which is afforded several reverent hours. The pace of life is slower, the meal times truly appreciated. Yes, sandwich shops exist where you can drop in and get a quick bite to go – but you will usually find such establishments double as a wine bar, where as early as 11 AM little old men are enjoying a deep red glass of Chianti and chatting with the owner behind the counter. Merely by stepping into such a place, you are observing – and partaking in! – the culture. And I haven’t even started on the food itself yet.
This part is somewhat obvious – what people eat is, of course, part of who they are. And their culture is also [duh] an important part of who they are, so it’s a double dose of cultural immersion. But, let’s face it, the real fun is on the menu. While back home, your younger brother is chowing down on turkey & swiss on rye, you are about to dig your fork in to a hearty plate of fresh pasta, doused artfully with homemade tomato sauce and crowned with real parmeggiano-reggiano.
And don’t forget the bread on the side! Or maybe it’s a big steaming bowl of my very favorite ribollita (the presence of bread goes without saying).
Either way, a far cry from that little Wonderbread-clad sandwich on the other side of the Atlantic.
Call it a bunch of rambling, but all of this is to prove a point. Yes, eating in a new place can be scary. (Cacciucco, anyone?) But it’s an important part of getting to know that new place so everything else in it can be, well, less new & scary! I learned a lot more than just what the best kind of cheese is when I ate in Italy. (It’s fresh pecorino, by the way. At least I think so.) So please, before you throw up your hands and spend whatever precious little time you have abroad consuming a steady diet of ham & cheese sandwiches (don’t get me wrong, they have their place – just not 24/7!) – try something new. Even if you have no idea what you just ordered. Even if the waiter tries to translate and you think it might be something with a a beak, 3 legs and a dorsal fin. You might discover a new favorite I-must-eat-this-every-day food! You might also discover a new I-will-never-touch-that-foodlike-thing-ever-again food, but that’s okay too. What I can guarantee is that you won’t regret your choice of going out on a limb and trying something brand new. I do recommend bringing a friend – for fun photo ops and, if that second scenario turns out to be the case, to share her inevitably delicious plate of whatever-it-is.
Now, I’ve given a great deal of time to explaining all this. And yes, it is because I love nothing more than talking about food and Florence, but it is also because I’ve been there, too afraid of new food to enjoy the whole cultural experience of dining. The regret I had about my first trip to Italy – spent hungry – was tangibly painful, and this time around, I was not depriving myself of that again. I learned a lot the second time around, but I’m lucky I got a second time! Heed these words, and you won’t regret a single minute of your trip. You’ll just live each and every one.
P.S. – See you in Austin!!!