My ugly American moment coming back from Rome (an odyssey that involved a two-hour delay leaving Rome, rebookings in Heathrow, and frantic sprinting through the Vancouver airport to make my connection to Seattle, not to mention middle seats on every flight including being stuck next to a friendly but elbow-happy and beer-swigging (Northern?) Englishman on the transatlantic one–)
Uh, let me start over.
My ugly American moment coming back from Rome came as I tried to navigate Vancouver’s beautiful but confusing airport, and I spotted a Starbucks shop, and inwardly sighed contentedly at the sight. There’s not a single Starbucks in all of Italy — the nearest one is in Cannes, France — and I kind of missed it.
(Somewhere, my sister just shuddered in horror and isn’t sure why.)
I actually really, really enjoyed the cafes in Italy. In Rome, at least, they take their food slowly and their coffee quickly; the etymology of espresso, according to Wikipedia, is linked to the English word “express,” in both the senses of “specific” and “fast.” When you walk into a bar, you order café for a single shot of espresso served in a tiny cup, usually with sugar on the side. You drink your espresso standing up at the bar. Sitting at a table costs an extra €0,40 or so, usually, and the coffeeshop culture doesn’t encourage the sit-down-for-hours-with-your-laptop behavior American coffeeshops do. Sitting and kibbitzing for a while is certainly welcome, though.
It took me about half the week to figure out that macchiato was the perfect drink for me — macchiato meaning “marked,” in this case with milk. It’s not much bigger than a single espresso shot, but it’s got a “mark” of steamed milk to cut down on the bitterness; it’s not as much milk as a cappucino, so you can still taste the coffee. Basically it’s a tiny, tasty shot of caffeine, completely different from what you’d get in America — a quintessentially Italian experience.
And let’s be frank: the culture of Italy was cool, and Rome is chock-full of history that made me fizz inside like a kid at Christmas, but I was really there for the food. I had a legit meltdown our first day there when, after some frustration with getting into the Colosseum, we got lunch and it was the worst cheese-and-tomato sandwich I had ever had. And let me tell you, having walked the Camino as a vegetarian, I’ve eaten a LOT of cheese-and-tomato sandwiches (bocadillos) of varying levels of quality. This one left them all in the dust in terms of sheer uninspiring blandness.
In retrospect, there is something deeply hilarious about the image of me sitting outside a bar in Rome with silent tears trickling down my cheeks as I forced myself to munch on a mediocre sandwich. But at the time it was really and truly upsetting!
Our efforts to find food improved dramatically after that. The challenge in Rome, much as it was in the big cities in Greece and Spain, was to find places that were serving home-made, unique food rather than the exact same menu as every other tourist-oriented restaurant on a given street. We ended up doing pretty well overall; I will remember the ravioli ricotta e spinaci in pesto fondly, as well as the gnocchi tricolore on my last night in Rome, and the fried artichoke and falafel in the Jewish quarter.
And the gelato.
I promised you a supercut of my gelato, didn’t I?
Fata Morgana was the closest gelato store to our apartment and by far our favorite in the city — it had the best price (€1 per scoop) and was constantly introducing crazy flavors like “Kentucky” (chocolate with tobacco), pear + gorgonzola, peach + wine, baklava . . . and everything was organic and handmade and they offered several flavors senza latte, dairy-free.
Soon I’ll have to go back to feeding myself, turning my limited expertise to making ramen with tofu and veggie burgers and whatnot. But that’s not so bad. I got my week of Italian food and Italian coffee.
And now I get my pumpkin spice latte.