Italy — A Feast for the Senses
A 13-day vacation to Italy. My tenth visit to this country. I can’t seem to get enough. Returning allows me to savor the sensual more slowly. I already know how good it will be. This place is a feast for the senses!
Touch is at the forefront of my experience as I climb the 463 steps to the lantern atop Il Duomo di Firenze. Climbing to the top of monuments is so touristy, I know, but I came across a photo online taken from this vantage point and felt I needed to see this for myself. The stairway is narrow and steep, and the physical space irregular. I can touch the cold stone walls on either side without much effort. Smooth in some areas — textured in others. There isn’t enough room for folks to climb up and down the stairs at the same time, so frequently I stop and step aside, my body bending forward and touching the curved wall behind me. This space, I learned, was initially used (and no doubt touched in the same way) by the workers during the construction of this magnificent dome between 1420 and 1436 — the same space now so cramped with tourists that I can easily touch their head, back, butt or calves depending on how steep the stairway is at that moment.
Once out on the lantern, warm sun and cool breezes touch my skin. Rewarding. I hold my camera in both hands, comforted by its weight and optimistic about the memories it will allow me to capture. My index finger caresses the shutter button; a half press allows me to focus on the scene below, depressing fully commits the scene to visual memory. The shutter sound tells me so.
I sit at a bar and stare at selfie sticks attached to Japanese tourists. Women at the counter chat in Italian. I can navigate the native tongue if my stomache or bladder is involved, but at the moment I have no idea what they are saying. And it doesn’t matter. I love to hear folks speak in Italian … the pronunciation of every single letter … the tempo and cadence, the subtle passion behind every single word. Maybe it resonates because Italian sounds a lot like Spanish, which itself is not lacking for passion. Spanish was my first language until I started school at age 4, so its resonance must be deep. The background music changes and a new song comes on. An obscure soul song from the 1977. “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto” by The Philadelphia International All-Stars. This experience is very international.
I also love to hear Italians speak English. Italian is spoken exactly as it is written, I read somewhere on the internet. Every vowel gets equal treatment in Italian, so naturally it must be so in English. We finish our tour of the focaccia tasting platter at the tiny but tasteful Verrazano. A brief history of Giovanni da Verrazano is on the back of the menu. It includes a blurb about the bridge. Yes, that bridge. The 20-something cutie with a smile for days comes over and asks if we want dessert. Wanting any excuse to look at him, we ask what he likes and wait patiently. His response is earnest. He likes the peh-are tart-a. Translation: He likes the pear tart. English words ending in hard consonants are a challenge for Italians. That “a” at the end is more like a cross between eh, uh and ah. Native Spanish speakers have a similar issue with English words that begin with the letter “s.”
I mention that I live in New York where The Verazzano Bridge is located. “It’s an amazing-a story!” he says with pride, as if Giovanni was a distant relation. Maybe he was.
I walk on uneven cobble-stoned streets right by the Ponte Vecchio, hyper-aware of slow-moving tourists and fast-moving vespas. The atmosphere reminds me of Times Square, but Italians regard tourists with much more grace than we do in New York. Often I move the camera away from my eye only to see an an Italian looking at me, patiently waiting for me to finish my photograph and nodding at my artistic endeavor. Suddenly I look down and there it is … one of the city’s sewer grates. Despite the fact that Florence is overrun with tourists, the city is relatively clean. But these sewers? Pungent! For some reason, I am amazed that a city old enough to be considered the birthplace of the Renaissance has a functional sewer system. Fortunately, this olfactory assault is mitigated by the intoxicating scent of honey suckle. Vines cover some of the walls that I pass on the uphill schlep to Piazzale Michelangelo.
I walk past the corner bar and get a whiff of roasting coffee. I stop in place and take it in. Hordes of tourists rush past on their way to the next thing on their bucket list. Can there be a more exhilarating smell than that of freshly-ground coffee? I walk past another place and get a whiff of bread coming out of the oven, probably focaccia. I stop again. Ahhhh … this place encourages me to muse about food.
“A Plate of Pasta is a Plate of Love” comes to mind when one magically appears before me. Thank you Michelino … or was it Jim? It’s the first sit-down dinner at Borgo San Fedele, a renovated monastery in the hills of Chianti that is our home during this week’s photography workshop. At this very moment, I am the personification of happiness. Pici All’Aglione. Pici is a type of pasta that looks like fat spaghetti, region-specific to Tuscany. All’Aglione means big garlic. The sauce is made using only a few quality ingredients. Razor thin garlic clove slices — a lot of them — sautéed in extra virgin olive oil. Whole tomatoes crushed by hand. Recipes on the internet say to cook the tomatoes for 20 minutes. Andrea, our chef for the week, explains that he coaxed them slowly for three hours. I bow my head into the plate — my nose one inch from the food. I want to absorb this amazing smell into every pore of my face.
Some of us need help twirling our pasta, so spoons are handed out as an after-thought. I then have my first taste. Is there such a thing as a food-gasm?
My last night in Florence and I return to Arà, where gelato is among the many typical Sicilian goodies. I am sick of walking around with a map and leave it at home. It takes longer to find the gelato place — First World Problems — but suddenly there it is. The young woman behind the counter is friendly but formal, as Italians in the food service industry often are. I had stopped by this afternoon for a cannolo (note to America: it is one cannolo, several cannoli) and vowed to return this evening, gelato flavor pre-decided.
The first taste of Ricotta gelato is followed by a slow exhale. And OMG, was that a moan? The subtle taste reveals itself slowly. Creamy beyond belief and silky beyond … well whatever. Probably the best gelato I’ve had in my life. Unawares, my eyes close with the spoon in my mouth. Opening my eyes, I see that the young woman is looking directly at me. A knowing smile is on her lips. I note how cremoso the gelato is. She says it is a gelato flavor typical in Sicily.
I pay and leave, holding a tiny cup of heaven in my left hand. The young woman probably thought I was kooky for allowing her to see my unguarded pleasure during the first taste. But what is the harm? Italy encourages me to feel. I am open to the experience. My senses are totally present. I am never disappointed.
To view my photos from this trip, click here.