I step, light-footed and young, off the cobblestone sidewalk into the ancient, afternoon-sunlit piazza. The carved statues stare down with timeless, mild judgement, a group of children pass by on their creaky bicycles, and tourists amble aimlessly in the late-summer warmth.
I take the first soul-refreshing bites of my gelato cone, a combination of fresh lemon and blueberry sorbet. The sweet tang of blueberry compliments the tart, citric lemon, and with a practiced twist of the wrist I paint my tongue with two flavors at once. The frigid, delicate substances dissolve instantly onto my parched tongue, flavored snowflakes caught in a blast of heat.
I pull my mind out of the future, out of the tomorrow, out of the museum I’m about to visit, and focus on the taste. The exquisite dance of citrus and sweet, the refreshing ice. The moment your taste buds come alive, after you take a bite but before anything passes the throat. The simple pleasure of eating an ice cream.
I take another lick, and something goes wrong. Lurchingly wrong.
The top-heavy ball of gelato, freshly scooped, hasn’t yet had time to settle, and my vigorous tongue knocks it off it’s lofty pedestal.
For an instant, everything is off balance, reeling, upside-down.
But, to my surprise, lady luck kicks in. My free hand jerks forward, and within a millisecond it catches the globulous, melting ball of sweet citrus on its way down to hot, sticky sidewalk oblivion.
Not missing a beat, my hand next restores the delicate ball to its rightful throne, squished, drippy and undignified, but intact.
I look up and see a young boy who just happened to be watching the entire scene, mouth half open. He smiles, and I grin back.
The ice cream, almost lost, somehow tastes even sweeter than before.
Sometimes, we don’t fully appreciate what we have until it slips through our fingers.
Out ‘n About in Northern Italy:
Matteo: “Nick, where are you headed next?”
Nick: “Well, I’ve been really enjoying visiting friends. Next up, I’m thinking next of visiting someone in Mantova.”
Matteo: “Ah, Mantova!? Beautiful city, absolutely wonderful! Filled with art and music and literature. Also ancient architecture and crazy churches. You have to go!!”
Nick: “Oh, great! So you’ve been there?”
Matteo: “Uhhhm, no.”
I’m in Milan, staying with my good friend Matteo, for a weekend full of sightseeing, food and friends. I haven’t seen much of Matteo since my university days, and its been a real pleasure spending time with someone you know from a long time ago.
The beauty of friends is that you get to see them grow, and change with the seasons. They are a little older, a little different, a little more professional, a little more happy and a little more sad. But in truth they’re the same, and thank the lord for that. Though years may pass, with a bit of luck your real friends remain your real friends.
After an action-packed, late-night Saturday, filled with ancient buildings, Ferraris, multi-course dinners, farewell parties, espressos and tired feet, I wake to the calm sound of Sunday rain. The previous afternoon, Matteo and I had planned various grand Sunday expeditions: a museum here, an archaeological site there, or perhaps a visit to a new and upcoming part of Milan.
The drizzling rain, now suddenly mixed with the smell and sound of sizzling marinara, douses our ideas of grandeur. It’s a sleepy late-Sunday morning, everyone’s wearing pajamas, pasta’s cooking away in the kitchen, and things seem right with the world.
Matteo’s roommate Francesco (“Fra”), hails from Sicily, and today it is our treat to enjoy his “Pasta alla Norma,” a deftly prepared Sicilian dish cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, eggplant, garlic and olive oil, and topped with graded cheese and basil.
Instead of rushing through the motions, everyone take their time.
While mouth-watering wafts of tomato and garlic originate from Fra’s corner of the kitchen, Matteo prepares the macedonia fruit salad, and I chat with two other Italian friends who have casually dropped in for lunch.
At that point when you’re mouth-waveringly hungry, but not yet hangry, lunch is ready. Five bowls of fresh, cheese graded and basil-topped pasta circulate, and, after opening a bottle of red wine (with no label, naturally), we begin.
The pasta is al-dente, the sauce is fresh, bold and mouth-watering, and the just-picked basil, washed clean by the rain, acts like a cherry on top. With a strength of will I eat slowly, though it’s a tough assignment.
In classic Italian fashion, there isn’t a clear “finish” to the meal. At a certain point, more than minutes but less than an hour after everyone has finished, the plates are cleared, and the fresh macedonia fruit circulates. Another undetermined amount of merry time passes, and then the ice cream makes an appearance. Yet another amount of chatting time passes, and the desert wine comes out, followed by a gestivo liquor, followed by an espresso.
Hours later finds the five of us all still sitting around the table, chatting happily, bellies full and content. When Matteo offers me a second espresso, I stretch my arms up and out, yawn, look out the rainy Sunday window, absent-mindedly stretch my belly, consider, and finally say-
“Ummmm. Oh, why not. It’s Sunday, after all.”
Unfortunately, I neglected to take a photo of Fra’s delicious pasta concoction. Instead of a photo, instead I will include, straight from the horses’s mouth:
PASTA ALLA NORMA
(Courtesy of Fra)
- “Paccheri” pasta (generally about 100 grams of dried pasta per person. A one-pound or 500 gram pack should do for 4-5 people)
- 1 medium eggplant
- Peeled tomatoes, sliced (Fra used tomatoes from a can, but one can also use fresh tomatoes)
- Olive oil
- Hard cheese to grade (Fra uses “Ricotta salata,” though I imagine a substitute of Parmesan or similar would serve)
- Cut eggplant into small slices, wash, add salt, and let dry for 30 minutes.
- Lightly fry eggplant in oil, approximately five minutes on medium flame.
- Remove pieces, and let them dry on paper towels to absorb oil. Set aside.
- Boil water for pasta.
- In separate pan, add a dollop of olive oil, a few large pieces of garlic, and let cook for a few minutes.
- Add tomatoes when garlic begins to brown.
- Cook for 15-20 minutes on low heat, stirring often. Salt to taste.
- Add pasta to boiling water.
- When sauce is ready, add eggplant, and then add drained pasta directly into pan.
- Mix everything together, plate, add grated cheese, top with basil leaves, and enjoy!
- Fra’s grandfather adds a few pinches of salt, but also a small teaspoon of sugar when the sauce is almost ready.
- If the pasta should be boiled for 10 minutes, instead, boil for only 8 minutes, then add the pasta to the sauce, and cook everything together for another 3 or 4 minutes.
A few final thoughts:
Next month will mark the one year anniversary of my departure from California.
From New Zealand to Thailand, from Japan to the Philippines, from India to Europe, it’s been a journey.
A few weeks ago, a friend in Italy asked me, “Nick, do you ever get sad?”
It was a bit of an unusual question. I usually get “what is your favorite place so far?!” or “where’s the next stop?” or “how did you ever decide to leave to go travel?”
I thought for a minute.
“Yes, I do. Of course I do. I have bad days. I make mistakes. Sometimes crummy things happen. Sometimes I struggle with making the right choice. Sometimes I feel down, and lonely, and tired.”
I guess the question just made me reflect a bit. I write this blog, and usually focus on positive things that happen in life.
I focus this way because I am a positive person, but also because I want to share these positive experiences with people I love. I would rather make someone laugh, or dream, or bring a little sunshine during a rough day, even in a small way, rather than focus on the negative.
Sometimes I feel silly writing stories about ice cream, when racism and hatred are permeating our country, millions of people are suffering from natural disasters, and people are experience real, huge, life problems.
So, to those who read this blog, I don’t mean to downplay the problems of others, or ignore the problems of the world. And I don’t mean to trick you into thinking I’m always on the top of the world, because there are truly rough and difficult moments in this life of travel too.
But, given the choice, I would rather share the positive and happy moments, even if they are silly and benign, and leave the negative ones to their own company.
To those I have wronged, or disappointed, or hurt, I’m sorry. Sometimes my head is up in the clouds and, selfishly, I forget to come back down to earth. I may be far into this journey, but there’s still so much to learn.
Thank you for your love, and patience, and fortitude.