Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ancora Più Dolce | 3 WAYS MY TRIP TO ITALY BECAME EVEN SWEETER (and I only gained 5lbs)

By Dominick Hiddo

photo credit: Dominick Hiddo | project: Clean Food

Last year, Italy changed my life. I mean, overall, everything changes our lives. The food we eat. The books we read. The music we listen to. The work we do. The decisions we make, the people and the circumstances. Everything affects our lives and our lifestyles. But I will say that my deeper exposure to the Italian culture really took my understanding of La Dolce Vita to a whole new level. After my trip last year, I made a conscious decision to study the culture and lifestyle of the Italian people. And part of that took place when I came home: of course with Kaite's help. Also, I started taking classes in efforts to study Italian. But as you can imagine, you can't really study and speak a language until you begin to digest and understand the culture surrounding that language, and I'm not only talking about the food: I'm sure many of you bi-lingual and multi-lingual people know this very well. But I'm just learning all about this. Katie's family in Italy doesn't speak much English. So, learning about the language and the culture became a priority for me last year, and especially this year. But as you can imagine, studying Italian for a few months would not be enough to immerse me fully in the country and all of its nuances just yet. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful launching pad for what I was set to experience this year.

Upon walking off one of the greatest airlines ever created (Emirates: they. just. get it), I was immediately greeted with "Buonasera, Buonasera" (good evening). It was just after 4pm and Milan was alive and vibrant. But the interesting part for me--the signs written in Italian--I actually understood some of them!  The conversations being had in and around me at the airport in Italian (be it about lost luggage or directions to the closest bathroom), I understood some of it. I have to say, I felt pretty spectacular. In that moment and in my mind, I was basically Italian: so chic. But then we stepped outside of the airport, and then everything sounded different. The train operators spoke a little faster. The Milanese spoke to each other in a type of Italian that was slightly different from what I was used to hearing. And I realized immediately that like many languages, there were dialects and varieties of how the language was to be spoken. And if there were language varieties, then there were food varieties. And if there were food varieties, then there must be cultural and lifestyle varieties. I was a little overwhelmed at first. But I made a commitment to just take it all in and learn as much as I can about this beautiful land and culture that was super welcoming and receptive to me. And everyday during this trip, it got better and better. And here's why!

Oh, The Language
So after spending a couple months drilling all the basic nuances of the language into my head during class here in New York, I realized very quickly after arriving in Italy that my understanding of the language was merely a few pages in the first book of a 6-book trilogy: there was definitely lots more to learn. When I heard people speaking in formal and in not so formal environments, all I could pick up was a word here and a word there. All I understood were the basics: where to, where from, how are you, etc. We read and wrote a lot in Italian class; but how people speak Italian vs. how it's written is a little different. And so, I was ready for a challenge. But not just how to speak the language, but more so how to understand the language from a cultural perspective, and why people speak slightly different depending on environment, circumstance, associations, etc. That brings me to Firenzuola (a small municipality in the North of Tuscany) and more specifically, to the small town within this little commune where Katie's family is from. They have a very particular dialect when they speak Italian: a "true Tuscan dialect". Since this was my second time being exposed to their style of speaking, I am happy to report that I understood so much more this year than last. I wasn't able to respond in the way that I'd like to, but this was a great start. I think I understood more because I understood the family more, and even the townspeople. I was completely immersed in that sweet life everyone talks about. And I have to say, it took a hold of me. People looked at me in my eyes and spoke Italian to me as if I were born there. I responded sometimes where I knew how to, but most times I relied on my trusty translator, Katie. There must have been something in my body language and my mannerisms that led the Italian people to believe that I was much more fluent than I was.  In a more northern region called Liguria (where we hiked the Cinque Terre), the Italian language had another sort of accent on it. To my virgin ears, it almost sounded as if when the Ligurians spoke, they had a sort of slavic sound to it: like there may have been some influence from Slavic countries. The interesting part here, it seemed as if I understood them more clearly than the Tuscans. From taxi drivers to waitresses, to the random tour guide that tried to swindle us for our national park tickets, it was all very clear.  Maybe it's in my DNA or maybe it's all in my head, who knows. But one thing is for sure, the more I allowed myself to hear the people, see the people and be around the people, the more the essence of the language seemed to flow through me. Besides, I think Pomarola is starting to flow through my blood streams. 

The Local Locali
So we're out to dinner. Katie and I, and two friends from Florence. I'm the only that's not fluent in Italian in this group. Nevertheless, I was ready to hold my own. And I did! All through dinner, I understood most of the conversations. I felt pretty good about myself as I was constantly testing my ability to understand people through conversations, through food, and through their lifestyles.  After dinner, we all followed tradition and went on a little walk (passeggiata). During our walk, we ran into one the friends brother's, and his friends (this is where it gets interesting). "Piacere, Piacere". "Nice to meet you, Pleasure to meet you", all around. Then after the pleasantries, the conversation evolves. The tones change. The style of speaking changes. Then the body language starts to come out. Hands start flying. Shoulders start gyrating. And all of that just trumped the spoken language. The words from everyone's mouth sounded as if they were mumbling or speaking some illustrious code. Everyone was responding and laughing at the apparent humor of the conversation that was like another language within the Italian language. And all I could do is sit back and watch with awe and a smile. It was a local city thing. Very different from the small towns. These guys that we ran into in Florence were like "the Bros" of Florence. You know what I mean. You know, "the Bros": (drink, party, pick up chicks, smoke cigarettes, eat great food, drink great wine, dress super fashionable, all super beautiful, and all beautifully tanned). This was a local of the locals moment. And I loved it. This was bigger than the spoken language. I knew this was something I wouldn't learn in Italian class. And I probably wouldn't learn it back home in the US. Back in Covigliaio (Firenzuola), the body language only came out when there were intense and passionate discussions about food philosophy, "how-to-cook-food" philosophy, cultural do's and don'ts, people in the neighborhood, relationships, and of course the beauty of Love: you know, normal things. When and why people gestured and gyrated their bodies, I haven't quite figured that out yet. Depending on the town, some people did it more or less than the other.  It was another local thing. 

Hiddo | project: Clean Food
Up north in Liguria, in particular in the Cinque Terre, seafood (like lobster and anchovies) and anything involving pesto sauce seemed to be the local fare. And since there were quite a bit of grape farms up in the Cinque Terre, many wines were produced not too far away in the nearby villages embedded in the mountains in and around Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, and  Monterosso. And when they are produced locally, it tends to be much more inexpensive than a wine from further away. Italians don't believe that there is something better than what they have. They believe that what they have is the best: and is best for them. They don't necessarily feel compelled to source anything from too far away to fulfill a need. And this especially goes for food. We stumbled upon a restaurant in Manarola (Trattoria Dal Billy) that is a predominantly a seafood restaurant. They serve what is caught that day. And the best part is, they actually do the fishing. They do all the preparations. They own the entire process from start to finish. Nothing is sourced, not even the herbs and spices: and definitely not the tomatoes. Everything is from the Cinque Terre (or nearby): there are farms everywhere literally cascading throughout the mountains. In addition, they prepare pasta in the same tradition that their lineage of family has prepared it for generations. I was blown away. And not just by this restaurant. But by the entirety of Italy's pride in culture, in lifestyle and in food. Because whether it's strolling through Firenze at midnight and running into friends, or sampling some of the the world's best locally sourced and prepared foods, the Italian lifestyle is intricately woven together by a homegrown culture, language, and food that has given birth to that same lifestyle that we celebrate and revere here in America and around the world. 

A Deeper Togetherness
The true Italian lifestyle is likely only learned in Italy. And spending time with Katie and her family brought us all even closer together. Mainly because I've realized that they are just as eclectic, colorful, comedic, and erratic as I am. I feel like I began to observe a little of this last year. But there is something to be said about experiencing something the second time around: it's just lovelier. The women in her family demanded that I stay out of the kitchen and relax on the dondolo and read the newspaper before and after meals: OMG, the life! Here in NY, Katie and I do most cooking together, washing together, etc. In Italy, women do all the housework. Men just work and nothing else. She finds this obscene. But it's also quite possible that her family finds it quite odd that a man does house work back in our home. Either way, I was loving it. But when we all came together for meals, we did exactly that. We all sat at the table together. Not one person off in a corner eating while on their computer or on their phone. Not one person wrapping up their portions to go and eat it on the run. Because, when her nonna yelled half-way across the yard, "OK! Tutti a tavola!" It was time to eat. Everything stopped and family time over a hot meal became the ultimate priority. During this time was the time to talk about issues, experiences, philosophy, beliefs, town gossip, current affairs, you name it. But regardless of what was discussed, I realized that doing this for two weeks straight without missing a beat definitely brought me closer to everyone: including myself.

Katie with a casual hair flip after the long hike
I always wondered where Katie got here erratic and eclectic personality. When we are going through airport security, she's wound up. When we are figuring out how to get to the Cinque Terre, she's wound up. When we are hiking the through the Cinque Terre (and with just reason as those hikes are super challenging and fear inducing), she's even more wound up. Her hands are flying. Her voice is super loud. Sound familiar? It's that Italian passione! And I understood it even more as I spent more time with her family. Unlike her, they don't need to be traveling or hiking to let the emotions and passion reverberate throughout. They make their presence known even in just a simple discussion: like the one about Salerno (south of Italy). And whether or not the pizza restaurant we love here in NYC is really from the south, and what it means to be from the south. This seemingly simple discussion raised red flags about politics and the meaning of being Southern Italian. For those of us reading this passively, I totally understand how this may not be a thing worthy of much regard. But in Italy, everything is discussed with passion and emotion. Everything is experienced fully with passion and emotion. And expect nothing less. It's still something I'm getting used to. Because in all honesty when life is filled with passion, you may never feel a lack of anything. It's a love so deep. 

And, I think I need to go back so I can deepen that passion for life in me.


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