I felt almost apologetic when I realized this trip to Rome was really going to happen and I had to start mentioning it to people. I already felt like it was too much good fortune for any normal person when I got to go to London and Berlin in April, and now here we were jaunting off across the world again only a few months later! Sam had been asked to teach a class way back at the beginning of the year, but then it looked like it wouldn't go through, and I was pretty sure I couldn't leave the kids again, and—well, maybe the details are boring, but anyway the stars and the babysitters aligned, and suddenly (just as we were getting home from Yellowstone!) we had one week to get ready and go! The preparation (for me) was a jumble of laundry, and sleeplessness, and losing things, and forgetting things and remembering them at the last minute. And Sam was just frantically trying to prepare twenty-one hours' worth of class material. But finally we were on the plane and then we were flying over the Alps!—and realizing we were truly going to Italy.
There was a bit of uncertainty and grumpiness that first day, I'm sorry to say (speaking in the passive voice so as not to assign blame to anyone in particular)—probably a combination of worry for the kids, and lack of sleep, and abject terror induced by the taxi ride from the airport (which was actually kind of fun, looking back on it—darting forays down crowded, one-way streets; and wholesale ignoring of traffic lights; and squeezing with complete abandon through impossibly tight alleys). We emerged from the taxi feeling dazed and hot and foreign, and after dropping off our suitcases, wandered around in the Borghese Gardens in a dutiful effort to stay awake till nighttime.
Everything was SO dry. The grasses were dead and the trees were brittle, and there were strange insects screeching above big bare patches of earth. It couldn't have been more different from Hyde Park or the Tiergarten if it had been on Mars!
And then there was the garbage…everywhere! Piles of it overflowing from dumpsters and spilling off of street corners, heaped up in ditches and cascading down gutters. It smelled so bad you could actually taste it, and there were little flies rising up in clouds from oozing bags and overturned cans.
But then, on the way from the airport, there had been a glimpse of THIS…:
And (if you could tear your eyes away from the acres of garbage), there were whole streets lined with flowering trees, like THIS:
And we had found a tiny little restaurant, so small you had to crowd inside with dozens of other sweaty people to order, and then take your food outside to balance on a tiny little ledge while you burned your fingers eating it, but the food was THIS:
So it's not like we needed to feel sorry for ourselves or anything. :) But as we collapsed into bed that night, I have to admit I was feeling a bit of, "So THIS is ROME? What am I doing here? Am I even going to LIKE it here?"
I woke up still feeling apprehensive. Sam was going to be teaching all day and I was on my own, and everything felt SO foreign. I had scheduled a food tasting tour for myself, and I had to use Uber to get myself there (which is WORLDS better than a taxi for a small-town, non-taxi-riding person like me—no "hailing," no giving of directions, no worrying about what to pay or how to pay—but which is still unfamiliar enough to be nerve-racking), and I realized as I sat in the backseat of the car and watched the unfamiliar city rush by that our airport driver hadn't been an aberration, but that there really just aren't…any…traffic rules in Rome. Well, that's not quite true. They did have traffic lights. And one does drive on the right…usually…though that seems to be a quaint custom which only the most conservative driver retains. But lanes are nonexistent, and the drivers honk and gesture and squeeze around each other and stop in the middle of the street, and generally appear completely incensed when other drivers do exactly what they themselves did moments ago.
But. My driver was friendly, and told me about the sites we were passing, and although the traffic was terrible (it's always terrible) and I was late for my tour, I found the right spot, and soon I was walking through a bustling market, past flower stalls, tasting vinegars and olive oils and cheeses, and I felt like I could breathe for the first time that day. Being in the care of a tour guide rather than all on my own was very soothing to the soul!
Then we walked into a store full of MEAT. But I like meat! So that was fine.
We tasted all kinds of salami and salumi (which I learned the difference between—salami is ground up and put into a skin, like sausage, and salumi is just cured meat in general. So salami is a type of salumi. Ha!) and I liked everything. I also liked watching the other people on the tour. There was a very foodie-ish couple from Boston, with two young girls named Endive and Paté (or so I imagined to myself—ha ha), and it made me feel quite at home to see the girls turning up their noses at various meats (even though I think my kids would have liked it!) and dragging along limply and grumpily after their parents, as children do. It also made me SO grateful I wasn't carrying a heavy, heavy baby around Rome.
And when we finished eating meat and walked into this beautiful piazza, all my last doubts and worries disappeared, and I thought: I LOVE it here.
It's all so beautiful. The colors. The travertine. The obelisk (stolen from Egypt, naturally. There was such a craze for Egyptian architecture at one time, there are now more obelisks in Rome than in Egypt itself!) and the gorgeous fountain, designed by Bernini. It took my breath away.
But I think the thing that really cemented my love for the city that second day were these narrow streets, paved with cobblestone and flanked by warm-colored walls. It just felt like Italy should feel. I kept having to push down the secret suspicion that it was all an elaborate set-up for the tourists, but wherever I went, even in quiet, tucked-away neighborhoods where there were no shops and all I heard spoken around me was Italian, it was the same.
You'd peer down every other street and see another piazza with a fountain in it, or a perfect little jewel of a church, like this one. It was enough to make you forget the garbage!
(And, to be fair, one of the guys at the school Sam was teaching at said there had been trouble with the sanitation workers when the new mayor was elected. They'd been on strike [of course] and the garbage was worse than usual, he said. And they did apparently make more of an effort to clean it up in the more tourist-heavy areas. And I thought, well, maybe it's just that all big cities are like this. And maybe New York is. But when we got home and were walking in downtown Salt Lake, I looked around and thought, "No. This is a comparative haven of cleanliness. It was definitely WAY worse in Rome.")
Another discovery that made everything SO much more pleasant was the water. Oh, the Roman water! The weather was SO hot, and it was almost unbearable that first day. This is definitely NOT the time of year you'd choose to visit Rome, if you had your choice. There are tons of tourists at the museums (even worse than usual as this is a "Year of Jubliee" for the Catholics) and the gardens and parks are parched and dry from the heat. BUT, thanks to the ancient Romans and their still-working (!!) aqueducts, there is water everywhere! Fountains like this one on practically every street corner, constantly flowing with cold, delicious mineral water. Once I learned this was drinkable water it changed everything! You can stop and fill your bottle, or put your hand under the spout to make the water spurt up through a hole so you can drink it, or just put your hands and wrists underneath to splash yourself and cool off. It made walking around so much better! And it was fun to look for the fountains. There are larger, more ornate ones like the one above, and then little ones, like this one:
called "nasoni" because the spouts are shaped like a "big nose." And I just felt so happy to be drinking such good water out of such an ingenious, ancient system of reservoirs and fountains and aqueducts. It was a highlight of the trip, really. :) Some of the mineral water in Rome is even a bit naturally fizzy! So interesting.
I got to "make my own pizza" on that first food-tasting tour (and I put that in quotation marks because they clearly didn't trust the tourists to actually do anything. The dough was already made and rolled into circles, which we were permitted to pat out and then add toppings to, and then they posed each of us holding a pizza peel which the chef then—of all the indignities—took away from us so as to put the pizza into the oven himself! Hmmph!) and it was, honestly, one of the best things I've ever eaten. I have had lots of good pizza—I fancy myself a pretty good pizza maker myself, and I've been to some Italian-style pizzerias around home—but wow. This was truly amazing. My only regret was that Sam wasn't there to eat it with me! But we went back to the same place later, so all was well.
I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the food in Rome. (You know this is a subject of great importance to me.) It was so good. So, so good. But it was also…how do I put this? It wasn't the überfood. It wasn't in a whole class by itself. Our food-tour guide was telling us how when she goes home to Peru, she just "can't eat anything," because Rome has "spoiled her" and now that she's tasted the Roman food she just "can't ever go back." That struck me as hyperbole. Like anywhere, there are great foods, and interesting foods, and less-inspired foods. Some places that we ate felt transcendent, but then, I have had transcendent meals in the U.S., too. Even in Utah. Even in my own home. :) I don't think anyone has a monopoly on good food, and it wouldn't make sense if they did! Even if tastes didn't vary (which they do) and even if there were some objective standard of "delicious" (which there isn't)—there are just different degrees of how much food MATTERS to different people! So it would be both inefficient and nonsensical if every restaurant tried to reach the same end point.
I say all that as a prelude to, and an apology of sorts for, talking about just how great the food was. :) We had a few meals that were just okay. But when I look at the pictures of this pizza, I almost want to cry with how much I want to eat it again—and with knowing that no matter how much I want to, I CAN'T! Ha. With our pizza we drank lots of Fanta, and maybe it was the heat or maybe it was my imagination, but it just tasted so COLD and so good—nothing at all like it does when I've had it here. It was pale and yellowish (not orange) and not-very-sweet, and so refreshing.
And then there was the cheese. On the food-tasting tour I tasted something called "burrata," which is basically a fresh mozzarella with cream injected inside. It is AMAZING, and that's something I really DON'T know if you can equal outside Italy. I've even made my own mozzarella and my own ricotta (which were both great), and I did try some sort of artisan burrata at Harmon's (made in California, I think) and it was good—but none of those cheeses seemed to attain the level of excellence of the best ones I tried in Italy. Maybe it's something about the milk or the enzymes or the types of cows? Or maybe it really is just the halo of rosy memory coloring it.
This was a flatbread with burrata and sundried tomatoes on it, which our friends Jeff and Kit recommended to us, and eating it was one of those transcendent experiences I mentioned. SO good.
These were tarts or cakes or pies?—sort of all three at once—we had at some restaurant at midnight when we were starving, and again, they were so unlike anything we normally eat that they felt like a revelation. It's not that Americans can't make good dessert, but we just…don't? Or not often enough, it seems. These were almond-y and pistachio-y and custard-y and had that sort of bland sweetness that European pastries so often have. That doesn't sound like a good thing, but it IS. And so different. I just like it.
This was a plate of prosciutto and melon. An unexpected combination, but so good! We also had prosciutto with figs (I don't think I'd ever had fresh figs before!) and we loved it too.
And of course, the gelato. This is another thing that I suppose Americans are capable of making—I've had great gelato here—but I think Italy just distinguishes itself by the sheer quantity of quality gelato, if that makes sense. It's everywhere! On every corner! And with the barest attempt to find something amazing (checking Yelp, for example, and avoiding the MOST touristy areas), you CAN. We didn't have a single cone that wasn't just delicious and wonderful. So many interesting flavors, too! Maybe it's not our American gelato-making abilities that should be disparaged, but our gelato-eating abilities, because I can't help thinking that if more people cared about good gelato, production would rise to meet demand. It's the poverty of our dessert standards coming out again. Maybe there are just too many people who are dieting and would pass it up with an "Oh, I shouldn't." Hmmph!
Anyway, I feel compelled to document the gelato flavors Sam and I tried during our eight days in Rome:
- Salted caramel
- Panna cotta with caramel
- Strawberry yogurt
- Passion fruit
- Chocolate hazelnut
- Green apple
And for even more excitement: stay tuned for my next post, in which I peer into courtyards and notice lots of doors!