You Can’t Take It With You
When traveling with a pregnant woman through Italy, you end up eating a good number of meals by yourself. At least, this was the case when my wife and I spent a week in Italy together, while she was pregnant with our first child. No one tells you this, just like no one tells you that those first few months with a new baby are literally a kind of hell visited upon all parents in the form of sleepless nights, zombie-like days, colicky cries, and regular visits from a lactation consultant because much like the babies they nourish, breasts don’t come with a manual. Like that newborn baby, Italy brings much to the table, naked statues and gelato being just two of the more apparent things – but, as with that newborn baby, it can also be intimidating and even isolating at times.
Each day we’d scurry around some host city on an official, or unofficial, tour. Personally I’ve never been one to do the standard ‘touristy’ things in a given city, but my wife has a keen sense of the touristy things we must do, while weeding out the rest. This is likely due to her unflappable faith in Rick Steves and his series of travel guides. I’m pretty sure if my wife was forced to pick three things to bring along while stranded on a desert island she’d make damn sure one of those things was a Rick Steves guide book. Apparently this lone palm tree was planted by pirates in 1420 – isn’t that so interesting? To be fair, he rarely lets us down.
Of course, when you are pregnant putting in eight hours days of hoofing it around old European cities gets a little tiring. So apart from a token dinner had in some fancy restaurant on our first night in each new town, the rest of the nights in Italy found me wandering around Rome or Florence by myself looking for some kind of food. Being an introvert I actually didn’t mind the bit of time to myself. Still, I don’t usually like to eat alone. I know some people are fine with it, hell, some people have no choice. But I’ve always felt awkward about eating alone in public.
In any other country this would not have been a problem. I could wander around for an hour until I found something enticing and then I’d bring enough back to the hotel for the both of us. The problem is, and I don’t recall receiving a heads up about this from Rick Steves, in Italy there is really no such thing as ‘take out’.
Sure, you can grab a slice of pizza to go, or stop at the McDonalds in Florence, if you are really in a pinch. That’s not take out though, that’s just getting food that happens to be portable. In America, where I come from, there is no limitation to what you can ‘take out’. You can saddle up to an Indian or Chinese buffet with one of those styrofoam boxes that you keep expecting to be outlawed any day now, and help yourself to pounds and pounds of anything you want. In Italy, though, if you need a utensil to eat something, you can not take it with you. And to even broach the topic appears to be one of those things that only ignorant Americans do, like saying ‘napkin’ to a waiter in Paris in three different ways on the assumption that it isn’t so much a problem of translating words from English to French but a problem of finding the right way of saying the English words that this waiter will understand. Ah, Napkeen! Bien sur – oui, oui monsieur!
On our second night in Rome, after one of our eight hour long cross-city marathons, we decided to stop at a little restaurant that was a block from our hotel. I say ‘restraunt’, but it was more a bunch of tables with a cafeteria style display of various pastas. In America it would just be assumed that, given a choice, no one would actually get their food and eat it here, especially not when they could do so in the privacy of their own table-less hotel room while watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond.
The hostess (the lady behind the cash register) tried to seat us at one of the tables.
“Oh thank you, but would it be possible for us to just get something to go?”
At which point the hostess gave me a very puzzled look and tried to sit us down at the table again.
“Thank you, but we are very tired and weren’t planning to eat here. Do you do take out?” we asked again.
Clearly there was a communication problem.
“Food go home?” Surely there was some correct combination of english words she’d understand.
After a few minutes of struggling like this the hostess deferred to the chef (the guy standing behind the food like your old lunch lady, but without the hairnet and in nicer attire). He seemed to understand what we were after, but had a quite forlorn look, as though he couldn’t imagine why we wouldn’t want to stay here and dine in this lovely establishment. They conferred and admitting defeat decided to let us get something to go.
“Ok, ok. Pizza?” the hostess asked.
“Well, we’ve eaten a lot of pizza already, could we take home some pasta?”
“Spaghetti!” she responded. Finally, a breakthrough.
“Yes, spaghetti!” we said.
As we stepped over to the food we felt excited at the possibility of finally tasting some real italian pasta. The buffet included fettucines and tortellinis and stuffed shells and breaded pieces of chicken. It all looked so amazing even if it was basically the equivalent of eating at an Italian Ruby Tuesdays.
“I think I’ll have the fettucine” I said pointing to one of the dishes.
Before my wife had a chance to share what she wanted the hostess interjected. “Oh no, spaghetti” she said. She pointed down to a dish at the end of the counter that held a large quantity of spaghetti, the sort you expect to find at summer camp or possibly coming out of a can.
I can’t recall what, if any, language the remaining conversation took place in, but the upshot was that when she said we could have spaghetti she literally meant spaghetti, not as we’d assumed, a generic term for all kinds of amazing pastas. It also came out, though the details of how we came to realize this are foggy, that she could not heat it up for us if we were taking it to go. The food on the counter wasn’t even kept warm, but had to be heated in a microwave, or would be for dine-in customers which is apparently the only kind of customers they’d ever had until the moment we’d walked through the door that night.
Which is how my wife and I found ourselves back at our hotel room later that evening eating out of a shared pie container of cold spaghetti. It was decent, as far as cold spaghetti goes, but it sort of left a bitter taste in our mouth for Rome. We were learning that the Italians could be very warm and hospitable, but only on their terms.
When we arrived in Florence a few days later one of the first things we did was to go to the concierge of the bed and breakfast where we were staying and asked them to show us, with a map, places where we might be able to get food to go. The initial response of the concierge was encouraging because though no places came immediately to mind, she didn’t find the question to be batshit insane. She would have to make a few calls. It was when we returned later that day to ask if she’d been able to locate anything for us that we realized this wasn’t just a Rome thing, it was an Italy thing – she hadn’t found a single place apart from a few pizza stands that would be willing to let us bring food home.
The first night I found myself alone in Florence looking for food I decided to bite the bullet and just try eating by myself. I found another place that was more cafeteria or sandwich shop than restaurant, the sort of place that really begged for stacks of plastic and styrofoam containers but which only had plastic trays. There I took my lumps, literally, lumps of some pasta and vegetables plopped onto my tray, and took a seat by myself to eat. I went through the motions, ingesting and such, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt lonely in that place while an entire city, a beautiful city, buzzed just outside the doors. And I felt a bit awkward too. I wanted, no needed, the people seated around me to know that I was eating alone by choice. “I don’t usually do this,” I wanted to say. “But my wife’s pregnant.” I’d point to my wedding ring. “We are having a bambina.” And then one of the patrons would invite me to sit and eat with them and I would, because that’s what foreigners do in a strange land when their wives are too tired to stay awake past sundown.
Now I have heard that there may be some legitimate reason for the no carry-out policy, something, I believe, about these establishments not being legally allowed to send people home with certain kinds of food due to health concerns. But I suspect that even if such rules do or did exist, the issue is more culture than legality. For the concern in the voices of the people we spoke with, the hostesses, waiters and other providers of food stuffs, wasn’t one of “no no, we might get in trouble”. It sounded, in their broken english anyways, more like a concern for our souls – that of my wife and I and our unborn child. Who would choose, unless by gunpoint, to pass up an opportunity to sit down and enjoy a leisurely meal with family and friends? Who would rather choose just one kind of pasta to bring home, when you could stay and have them all? With that sentiment, if it was indeed what I sensed in their furrowed brows, I suppose it’s hard to disagree. I would cite that we had a special case, and that even the Italians must have some people who are so run down, by pregnancy or, perhaps, swine flu, that they would merit exemptions from these rules. Luigi – she’s gotta baby! Give her the warm meat-a-balls! In a box!
But I do get it. We here in America are all about rush, rush, rush. Even when we do find ourselves playing the part of the traditional family on vacation, say by treating ourselves to a dinner at the three story Olive Garden in Times Square, we are constantly under societal pressures to rush through our meal – to skip that second entree – to get those cannolis to go. And for what? So we can squeeze in one more off-broadway show and then be back to our hotel room in time to catch the latest episode of America’s Got Talent?
On the other hand, have you seen some of the acts on America’s Got Talent? Maybe, and I’m just speculating here, maybe Italy’s Got Talent just doesn’t have the same caliber of contestants. The sorts of folks who give you the courage to stand up at dinner and say to the waiter, “Look, I don’t think we’re going to need that third antipasto course after all. And those cannolis we ordered? We’ll take them in a box.”
Great writing Jesse? Time to consider change of career? BTW, have the exact same unshakeable aversion to eating alone in public!!
Oh, sorry, Jesse, that anonymous was by me, Uday! Write on, its lovely to read…psst, is your wife clearing these things for public release?? 🙂
Did I ever tell you the story about my high school girlfriend’s parents taking us to NYC and eating at the 3-story Olive Garden in Times Square? I was simultaneously amazed, but even then my little high school brain thought there was probably better food to be had in NYC.