test the tourist and other italian passions

One late afternoon, we were traveling in a regional train somewhere between Tuscany and Umbria. An elderly perspiring lady in bright colors had occupied all the opposite four seats with numerous bags and herself, and was fanning her face vigorously. After a few minutes, she addressed us in English, perhaps to distract herself from the heat. We answered in Italian (private brand), something she loved (while we stumbled).

Few conversations in Italy don’t turn to food after a while. – “Ah, you’re interested in food! What kind of food, pizza and such?” A sensible way to approach tourists, no doubt. – “Well, actually, I like cooking a lot, and I am very fond of Italian food – so, I’ve been trying to do some other things as well…”

This was the starting shot for an impromptu cucina-Italiana-quiz that lasted until we had reached our destination. What kind of things? What do you know about pasta making? (luckily, I have been using a wooden pasta-stick for a while and have some slooow control over the traditional technique) What would you do with fresh spinach? (oil, lemon…) Which herbs do you add to a roast of chicken? Pepper, rosemary? Absolutely correct! Benissimo! We got out of the train with a very hungry feeling. I probably love the Italian passion for food more than the food itself. No, that’s impossible.

But then again, what is “Italian”? Some of the subtlest regional differences appear to be unbridgeable:

The distance between the city of Padova and Venice is little more than, say, the distance between Tel Aviv and its airport. Our first stay in Venice had been preceded by a hot and shaky trip in a crowded train, and upon arrival, we were in great need of a cup of espresso. So we entered one of the first bars along the way and ordered something we found to be heavenly coffee.

Not so the man at the next table. With a loud voice and the wailing intonation of someone fundamentally wronged, he demanded to know what the drink in his cup was called in these parts. He, he pointed out, was from Padova, and there, some decent coffee was served, and this was an insult to the world. The waiter took affront, not because of the wailing, but because of his coffee being criticized. There is surely nothing wrong with my coffee, mister, he snapped, adding some very fast bits that contained the words Venice and Padova, and made the guest get up from his chair. Other guests came closer, and started remarking on coffee in general, on this coffee, on Venice and on Padova. The guest and the waiter were now shouting. People on the street stopped to listen. Curious to see the beauties of the city, we eventually took our leave, but there is a good chance that the discussion went on until closing time. I maintain that the coffee was totally okay, but perhaps I really don’t know very much about it.


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