Reflections on Italy (through an edible lens)

Ciao Readers!

I have begun to crystallize my thoughts from our recent road trip.  And, while I could just share those thoughts directly, I believe I can best illustrate them though my favorite medium – food.   Every time we traveled to Europe in the past we were always in search of the local specialties – pasta and pizza in Italy, cheese and croissants in France, and so on.  So we really paid no attention to what other types of food were available or what the eating habits of the locals were like.  This trip changed all that.

As you may recall, I have gone on many wild goose chases trying to source ingredients to prepare non-Italian foods and have tried the few foreign food places we have found here.   However, the conclusion I have come to (which has been validated by numerous Italians) is that Italians like Italian food.  Not only do Italians like Italian food, but they like all things Italian (apparently even their felony-convicted former Prime Minister).  Not only do they like Italian things, but they like them pretty much to the exclusion of non-Italian things.  That is why (in a direct way) it’s so hard to find variety in food here, and (in a more subtle way) why I feel such a strong sense of being a “stranieri.”  As the Italians I have discussed this with put it simply, Italians, especially Florentines, are “chiuso” (closed).  (Interestingly enough, these Italians usually take the form of folks who don’t feel that way – the man that owns the little Korean grocery and is married to a Korean woman; my language exchange partner who has traveled the world).   To be honest, until this trip to Paris and Amsterdam I didn’t realize the rest of Europe wasn’t the same way….

My first clue that things are not the same throughout Europe came while walking down our street in Paris.  While of course there were amazing French bakeries and bistros (more in a later post), there were tons of foreign food places.  Not one or two – tons!  The next clue came when we decided to try out a Japanese place we saw (we had to choose which of several we saw within a block).  We went during lunch and the place quickly filled up – with Parisians – businessmen and older women and everyone in-between.  Other than ourselves, we only heard French spoken.  And, much to my surprise, almost everyone was eating with chopsticks!  (As background, I have only ever seen two Italians eat with chopsticks – one being my language exchange partner who lived in Korea for 6 months and the other being a woman at PinGusto who was unsuccessfully trying to stab her sushi with one.)   This was not some exotic experience to these folks…it was lunch.  (For us it was our first unagi [eel] and non-salmon sashimi in 6 months.)

We had pretty much similar experiences throughout Paris.  Even at the upscale Lafayette Gourmet market, in addition to French foie gras (again, more in a later post), there was an entire stall for Chinese delicacies.  The regular grocery stores had things we thought didn’t exist in Europe – cheddar cheese and Oreos and Asian sauces and more.  And, while I have to say the hot sauce was nowhere near hot enough for my taste, the chips we got at the Mexican restaurant “Fajitas” were those fabulous thin-crispy ones I miss so much.   There was at least as much variety in Amsterdam (as well as the ability to eat before 8 p.m.).  And, while we enjoyed the local specialties there as well (stay tuned), we had what I could consider the best Thai green curry I’ve ever had.  Now, no offense to my favorite Thai place back in Albuquerque, but instead of 80% bamboo shoots (as I’m used to), my curry was filled with every vegetable on the planet.  Thinking the curry was going to be tamed-down for European taste buds (as was the Paris hot sauce), I made the mistake of asking for it “hot” and got what I asked for (anyone whose ever eaten authentic Thai understands what Thai hot means).  I loved every last mouth-searing second of it!!!   (Sadly enough, the hot sauce at the Amsterdam Mexican place we tried, while billed as “habenero,” was only about medium-Pace level hot.)

Now, I know you may be thinking it was weird of us to be eating all these non-French, non-Dutch foods on our trip… As my Lonely Planet “Amsterdam Encounter” put it (under a review of a Mexican place): “[Mexican food] is probably not why you came to Amsterdam.”  However, for us it was just the culinary (and thus cultural) relief we needed.  (Amsterdam also gave us our first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and first bagel in the past 6 months.)  We also came across an American grocery store – one with real American groceries (not the fake Filipino graham crackers or Swedish tortillas of Vivi Market).  Now, before you get too excited for us (especially after you see the picture of the front window, below), know that the prices were insanely high.  I have to admit, we did each treat ourselves to one thing, but pretty much just “ooooo’d”  and “ahhhhhh’d” (just as an example, one thing we did not splurge on was a normal sized Reese’s candy bar – 2.10 euros, or about $2.80).   We chatted with the proprietor and he said he has many customers from Florence, including a professor who comes 4 times a year and fills up an empty suitcase!   Interesting.

The result of these culinary discoveries was that I realized Italy really is the fairly homogenous society I suspected it of being.  And it likes it that way.  The second discovery was that other parts of Europe are much more international and open to foreign influences.  I hate to say it, but I felt much more comfortable and welcomed in Paris and Amsterdam than I do here most of the time.  People seemed friendlier and less annoyed at the Italian/French/English mish-mosh I was speaking.  I have no idea why the French get a bad rap – this is the 3rd time we’ve been there and people have always been nice (saying “bonjour”  and “s’il vous plaît”  probably helped).

I have many more reflections that fit better in upcoming posts, so for now I’ll leave you with some of the non-local food we enjoyed (or admired) on our trip:

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  1. The food culture is the same here in Spain…Spanish food and only Spanish food. It’s delicious but I just need some variety sometimes. The international food here is just ok, certainly not great. I got my fill a few weekends ago in Berlin where they have any kind of food imaginable! And it’s the same as France or Holland…people eating in these restaurants wasn’t some strange experiment (as it is here) it was just lunch or dinner! I’ve heard of that American grocery store in Amsterdam. There’s also apparently one in Stockholm, Sweden!

    • Interesting, but not surprising to hear about Spain. We’ll be there this summer – but we’ll be on vacation so looking for Spanish food. Hearing about all the pickpocketing in Barcelona (some we know just got pick-pocketed last week) is kinda harshing my buzz. Even though we’re super careful, the vigilance does take away from that “civilized” feeling I appreciate.

      • I’ve been incredibly lucky in Barcelona and have never had a bad experience. I didn’t know people thought such bad things about it until I started reading about it on blogs. But I love it and I’m sure you’ll have a great time. All my bad experiences have happened in Madrid and everyone seems to love it there!

      • We were actually in Barcelona a few years ago and had a great experience, and I totally dug it (as you can tell from my previous Gaudi post). This time we’re also going to Madrid…hope your experience there wasn’t too terrible…?

  2. D

     /  March 1, 2013

    Agree. Actually this post would open my flood of florence criticisms i’ve found myself having lately but i digress. I was just in genova and found it much more international and spicy, if you will. But overall italians are very closed to international things in general. One thought though is that italians have a hard time finding jobs. Welcoming stranieri, especially ones off a boat isn’t the time yet. I,ve always marvelled how in france they integrate immigrants into society but the french and dutch have a much wider emperial history so it’s easier. Maybe in 50the years italy will be more diverse.

    • So interesting. Every time I write one of these types of posts I worry about how they will be taken. Then several people comment in a way that makes me feel validated (as with you in this case). But then start to wonder why people who feel this way are also the same folks who say they are here for good (or the long haul)…. Still trying to process all of this! As for the racial issues, I have an even harder time approaching those, but I noticed the same “variety” in people as in the food – makes me feel much more at home – I feel very uncomfortable when almost all of the colorful faces I see are selling things on the street and are clearly not “part” of the community.

    • By the way, if you ever do want to digress over a cup of coffee, you know where to find me!

  3. D

     /  March 1, 2013

    I will! I don’t really use the email I have here, but will go check it to contact you. Actually, I can go on, too. lol. It’s a tricky subject. Iàm not trying to bash Italians since like I said, there’s a bit of a motive for being closed off to other cultures….but, I remember in my class full of Italians from not only Florence, but there were adults from other regions as well. One day the topic of convo was an article about the town of Lucca wanting to ban kebob shops and other “ethnic” places. The discussion turned into a “I agree! They only take jobs from Italians! They only steal clients fron Italian restrauants!!” I said it wasn’t likely a chinese restaurant competed directly with a typical tuscan trattoria, but….. anyway. My next point was to remind each student how they would always rave about sushi and mexican food….so many blank stares. As if one didn’t have anything to do with the other. Oh well.Like I said, here’s to hoping.


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