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Food and Travel Writing Italy

Different Take on Familiar Things

Different Take on Familiar Things

I. Cappuccino

The closest you’ll get to having typical American coffee in Italy is either an Americano or cappuccino. And, no, not one of those over-priced, barely coffee drinks you’d get at Starbucks or at any other non-coffee shop place. I’ve never really been to any real café-type of places before going to Italy, so suddenly being faced with having to figure out not only what the heck that delicious-looking pastry is called (custard sfogliatelle, Nutella sfogliatelle, cornetto, maritozzo, bombolone, and i pasticcini to name a few) but ordering a cappuccino from the crowded bar straight after arriving at our hotel in Rome was like diving straight into the deep end of a pool.

I knew coming on this trip that there would be significant differences to what I was familiar with back home in America and what I was being thrown into in Italy. While some of the adjustments were hard to get used to after being so firmly embedded in my muscle memory after twenty years of repetitive actions, having to quickly adjust to not stick out like the obnoxious American tourist to the rest of the Italians took more active awareness on my part. If this meant giving up my iced green tea lattes for two weeks, then so be it.

Typically, I like to savor my hot beverages, or maybe I just take my time drinking them because they’re scalding hot and I respect my taste buds enough to try and avoid burning them. I didn’t really have that luxury while in Italy, namely, because while sitting down to enjoy un caffè and taking hours to enjoy one’s beverage is common in Italy, I rarely had the time to enjoy that leisure. So, instead, I had to practically take my freshly made cappuccino like a shot and trying my best not to scald my entire mouth all at once.

Being submerged in Italy’s more laid-back culture for two weeks opened my eyes to how little respect Americans have not only for their barista (respectably dressed men who spend more time making coffee than I spend styling my hair in the morning) but also for the coffee itself. After only consuming what I thought as superior caffès for two weeks, coming back to American coffee makes me straight-up sad. Daresay Italy has ruined coffee for me – though you bet I’m still drinking it.

II. The Metro

If you’ve ever been to New York City and ridden the Subway, then imagining how the Metro in Rome would be shouldn’t be too far of a stretch to the imagination. Similar to the NYC Subway, a metro card is required for entry – whether this be a multi-use card or a single-use one, it doesn’t matter as long as it works and doesn’t get eaten by the machine (which actually happened during this trip). Compared to NYC’s $32 7-Day Unlimited MetroCard, Rome’s Weekly ticket costs €24.00 (equal to $28.06 in USD). While this doesn’t seem like much of a difference price-wise, it’s what you get with the card that makes the difference – and I’m not just talking about the unlimited metro, bus, and train rides you get with the card either.

The platform –  just as crowded as NYC, if not more – had a lack of sewer-smell and a few more nuns than one would see in America. Though, that’s more likely due to being so close to the Vatican. Whereas the NYC has twenty-seven subway lines, the Roman Metro has two main lines: A and B. There’s technically a third line – Line C – but the two main lines run in an X shape, going northwest to southeast (Line A) and northeast to southwest (Line B), intersecting at the station that was located right across from the hotel we stayed at in Rome: Termini.

Not only did these metro stations look and smell clean, but they were well lit compared to NYC’s grimy and dismal-looking stations. There was not even a hint of the urine smell so often found in New York. The most obvious thing I noticed while in Rome was how well taken care of and up-to-date these metros seemed. If I dropped something on the floor or set my bag down on the ground, I didn’t feel disgusted with what could be on the surface after picking things up. Granted I wouldn’t say it was “clean enough to eat off of” but for a public space, it’s upkeep reflected positively on the city – something I often think America and their public transportation system often fails to do.

III. Taxi

Who enjoys taking a taxi ride through New York City and having to pay nearly twenty dollars after sitting through traffic? Sitting in a cab that has more than a few questionable stains and smells is not my favorite mode of transportation. However, my experience of taxi’s in Bologna made me wish America could incorporate more aspects that I was exposed to firsthand.

“We’re going to be taking taxis to the train station instead of a charter bus, so everyone needs to turn in their room keys and split into groups of four.” I was told as I lugged my suitcase into Hotel Porta San Mamolo’s crowded lobby. After handing over the tasseled key and paying for the items taken from the mini-fridge, I huddled in front of the building with everyone else and waited for our taxi to pull up. It wasn’t the typical yellow cab you’d expect in America that pulled up to pick us up; instead, it felt like getting into an Uber.

It wasn’t until I looked at the meter halfway through the drive as we were stopped in light traffic that I noticed the one major difference between American and Italian taxis. Instead of taxing us for every second sitting there, waiting to move, the counter only increased with every meter we traveled. Handing over the €10 to the driver to cover the trip and a tip, I realized how much better that counting system is compared to the one America uses.

IV. Bathroom

The first time I had learned what a bidet was, it was my freshman year of High School during my French class. The idea of them escaped my mind for a few years until we were halfway to Rome and I began to wonder if I’d have a bidet in any of my hotel or apartment rooms during this trip.

The answer was yes.

Before Italy, bidets were a vague idea that only existed to me in the form of grainy pictures in French textbooks. I wish I could say that having a bidet in every bathroom of each place we stayed in during this trip was a surprise, but it really wasn’t. It was more of a game of guessing how inconveniently placed the next one would be. The bidet was simply another fixture in the bathroom; something that seemed like a more common practice for Europeans than Americans.

In our Rome hotel – complete with disturbing squishy carpet hallway-walls – this was my first in-person experience with the bidet. Though I never gave it a try for myself, I will admit I was tempted a few times. This foreign object would sit there tauntingly as I soaked my feet each night to alive some of the swelling a long days’ worth of walking caused. Still, I never worked up enough courage to try it out – though I sometimes now wish I would have given it a try at least once.

The bidet in our Florence apartment caused more frustration than anything, after discovering it blocked the pathway from the bathroom door to the toilet. Not to mention, having to practically straddle the fixture anytime you wanted to open the door (which swung into the bathroom) to leave the room. If the toilet and the bidet were switched, things would have flowed much smoother.

Even our airplane-bathroom-sized bathroom in Milan was fitted with a bidet. Somehow someone had managed to squeeze the bidet into one corner, the toilet into the other, and have a corner shower – complete with a slow-draining drain and a sliding glass door that didn’t stay completely on its tracks – in the remaining corner. That just left the sink to block off the rest of the remaining space, meaning you had to maneuver your way around that more than anything just to get into or out of the bathroom. It’s not like anyone wanted to be able to get in and out of a bathroom comfortably anyway, is it? Picturing these exact bathrooms in America makes me think of how spacious and nice some of them would be minus the bidet. I suppose that’s all part of the Italian experience.

V. Drinking

Of the 190 countries, 61% have a drinking age of 18 or 19 years old. That is not the case in the United States. At the time in Italy, I was still 20-years-old, meaning, while I was still underage in America, I was past Italy’s minimum legal drinking age of 18.  My only experiences with alcohol in my life thus far have been the minuscule sips of wine at Saturday church, the stealing the foam from my father’s beer while we sat at my grandfather’s house during Johnstown’s ethnic festivals, the occasional kalua and cream my mother let me have from the seclusion of our house, and, in typical teenage rebellion, a few snuck shots of liquor here and there.

Being above the legal drinking age in a foreign country, however, opened my world up to new experiences that I don’t think I’d have anywhere else. Going to just any wine tasting in America, for example, will never live up to the one I had in Tuscan Italy, surrounded by the vineyards and fresh countryside air, stepping into the oldest wine cellar I’ve seen in person, or even the fun and laughter I shared with those around me. I knew that part of any experience were the people, and any wine tasting I could ever go on now back in America seems weak in comparison.

Carrying an open bottle of the best non-wine wine cooler I have ever discovered while walking down the streets of Milan is something that I don’t think I’d ever experience in America – and not just because openly carrying open bottles of alcohol is heavily frowned upon in certain aspects. My only disappointment is that America no longer sells Bacardi Breezers (but it is available in Canada, Europe, India, China, and Australia).

My new favorite drink, besides the aforementioned Breezers and wine, is an Aperol Spritz. Standing on the secret terrace in our apartment complex in Florence, or relaxing under the shade in a small café, or even seated on the rooftop restaurant situated next to the Milano Duomo, sipping on an Aperol Spritz wherever I am will always take me back to those times had in good company – and even better food half of the time.

VI. Seltzer Water

Sure, in Rome it was easy enough to refill your water bottles up via the water ducts placed all around the city, but for someone like me who prefers seltzer water to normal water, getting used to Italian’s version of carbonated water was…frustrating to say the least. It’s not as though I didn’t drink the water in whatever form was available to be (otherwise I would have been more dehydrated than I likely already was), but whenever I had the opportunity to drink their version of ‘fizzy’ water, I took it.

“It’s fizzy, but not seltzer water fizzy,” is what I’d say after trying a bottle of bubbly water. The closest that I came to my level of bobbly water was acqua con gasso, but even then, the water had a perturbing taste of lemon and lime, even if there was no indication of said flavors on the packaging otherwise. If I moved to Italy, my SodaStream would be one of the few appliances I took along with me.

VII.Vending Machines

Vending machines in America are everywhere: hospitals, schools, train stations, amusement parks, rest stops. Anywhere that people frequently pass by will have a soda or snack vending machine – sometimes both. That’s not to say that places around the world don’t have them, but then I’ve never seen any vending machines in America – aside from the occasional rest stop – have vending machines solely for caffé. The few in America that you do find, however, rarely have as an extensive array of coffee drinks for you to select from. Seeing that kind of vending for the first time in Italy was in the halls of Sapienza Universitá di Roma, where I tasted what I could only describe as a hot chocolate latte, considering I have no clue what the name of it was or what it actually was, but I can say #22 of that vending machine was quite delicious.

My only qualms with these coffee vending machines were that they served a hot beverage in a plastic cup and required the buyer to have to lift a door up and then the cup up and out of the holder just to consume your €2 hot beverage.

While staying in Monastero Delle Camaldolesi in Poppi one of these coffee vending machines served as our free caffé for breakfast, and €0.80 the rest of the day. Enjoying unlimited various hot beverages in the early morning before touring “our castle” (Castello dei Guidi) was enough to get me through the first half of the day, but by the time we were to get ready to leave for Bologna, I was craving more caffeine.

Digging through my coins for the €0.80 necessary for another delicious hot chocolate latte, I deposited my change, selected the beverage third from the top on the left side column, and waited patiently for my drink to be completed. I was never more thankful that the nun who was checking us out was nowhere around, for as I attempted to grab my caffé, the hot plastic burned my fingertips. Slipping through my hand and splattering over the floor and my shoes, I couldn’t help that my first response to these events was a rather loud expletive. Even though my shoes are still stained to this day, that experience will always be connected to the idea of hot chocolate lattes and caffé vending machines.

VIII. Ice

It’s common in America for you to get ice in your drink when you go out to eat at a restaurant or fast-food place unless stated otherwise. Ice cold water is something I’ve always enjoyed; whether the drink is physically cold or with ice cubes included, the coldness refreshes me in ways that water of warmer temperatures does nothing for me.

In Italy, I discovered the coldest water I could get was when I put water bottles in our Florence apartment’s freezer for a few hours. When I asked the waiter at a restaurant in Rome for ice in my glass for my, frankly, huge bottle of water, I was met with a curious glance but a glass of literal ice water for the first time in days. I praised the Milan street vendors when the water they sold me was partially frozen, even if it was costlier.

Whether it’s typical for Italians to not have water colder than cool is something I never figured out during my two short weeks in Italy, but the same could not be said for the alcoholic beverages I’d order from the small café restaurant in Poppi.

IX. Chocolate Chip Cookies

Imagine my delight when, while browsing the aisles of Sapori, I came across a bag of what I believed to be chocolate chip cookies. The bag, sporting a bowl of what I thought to be a bowl of milk and a crocodile on the front cover lead me to believe these were either oddly shaped cookies or something similar to the American cereal Cookie Crisp. Regardless, the word “chocolate” got to me and I just had to try them.

Gocciole may fool you into thinking they are chocolate chip cookies shaped like raindrops, but these “fake cookies” – as one student vehemently referred to them as – are, in reality, biscotti typically eaten for breakfast. I personally found them to be quite wonderful dunked in a glass of Italian dairy – also referred to as “fake milk” by the same student. My only regrets are that I only brought one bag of tasty biscotti home from Italy and consumed them all too quickly. Luckily for me, after weeks of scouring the internet for these cookies, I have found the recipe for gocciole. Leave it to Pinterest to bring what I miss from Italy to me in America.

X. Potato Chips

My first experience with the idea of paprika potato chips was from a classmate who informed me that he loved them so much he had ordered some from Germany. I didn’t believe what made him so excited about them, but when I stumbled across them in the convenience store next to our apartment in Florence, I figured I should give them a shot. Cut to getting the other three of my roommates addicted to these paprika chips in a matter of minutes.

Paprika potato chips may not sound that outlandish, but when you suddenly have a craving for these snacks at one in the morning and discover that nothing similar exists in America, you’d start to wonder which country has the odder taste palate. Hint: it’s America.

These potato chips are as addictive as any other flavor chip – I should know; I polished off an entire bag in one sitting – and the taste of paprika left me wondering if they would taste good paired with my father’s deviled eggs. Surely, they would, or I wouldn’t be trying to replicate the taste and airiness of them failed attempt after failed attempt. Unless America finally realizes that paprika seasoning is wonderful by itself on potato chips and starts selling them in stores, or I finally perfect my chip recipe, then the only way I see myself enjoying those crunchy snacks again is in Europe.