After years of talking about it, we’d finally made the trip to Italy a reality. Though the husband and our well-traveled friends Anne & Dave had all traversed the peninsular boot before, it was my first visit. The husband and I started the trip in Rome, where I spent my days blissfully overawed as I walked, oftentimes in open-mouthed wonder, around a city that doubles as a living, breathing, open-air museum.
The husband, who’d been unimpressed with the ancient metropolis when he visited more than two decades earlier, was much more taken with it this time around. Whether he had changed or the city had, I don’t know, but we were both happy to have added a few extra days to our itinerary to see this gem. Vowing to return to Rome again one day, we boarded a train to Florence, another amazing Italian city that is steeped in history and worthy of its glorified reputation, where we met up with our friends and continued our explorations.
On this particular day, though, we were in Siena, a 90-minute bus ride from Florence. We’d seen the sloping piazza, learned from Dave about Siena’s centuries-old and quite dangerous annual horse race, and eaten an impromptu lunch at a restaurant we happened to stumble on in one of the town’s romantic narrow alleyways. We women had had to strongarm the men into agreeing to this meal. They weren’t particularly hungry, you see, but when you happen upon a quaint Italian eatery that’s this charming, you just have to indulge, and the food was as delightful as the ambiance.
Later in the day, while strolling Siena’s ancient back alleys after an embarrassing sartorial blunder in the historic cathedral, we came upon a tiny shop that drew us in. It was the kind that many people flock to Europe for—the kind we wish we had in the US—that harken back to a simpler time before grocery stores and malls took over. Tiny and cramped, every possible surface covered in exotic foodstuffs, this place was artisanal before artisanal was a marketing term. Hams hung from the ceiling with pigtails still attached and a small deli case showcased cheeses we’d never heard of. The “no photos” sign on the wall told us that tourists weren’t strangers to this place, but it was clearly built for locals and had an authenticity no tourism-focused interior designer could hope to emulate.
It was in this quaint shop that we met the most remarkable character. I was perusing a shelfful of tiny jars filled with variously colored spreads and pâtés and, using my newly acquired beginner Italian along with the pictures on the labels, was trying to determine which animal had given its life for our gustatory pleasure. There were the usual suspects: chicken, pork, beef, and duck, but also fish, boar . . . and rabbit?
Soon, a middle-aged woman approached—the shop proprietress, it turned out—and we all began chatting amiably about various culinary topics, including whether or not chocolate pasta was any good. The outgoing shop matriarch felt very strongly that it was about as appealing as “eating bananas with beef.” I also tried telling her that I wouldn’t be able to buy any rabbit pâté since we had a pet bunny of our own, but wasn’t sure how much of it made it’s way through the language barrier.
The next thing we knew, her mustachioed and aproned husband brought out a beautiful charcuterie and bread board along with a glass of Chianti for each of us. He ushered us just outside the shop’s door, insisting we eat and drink while we continued talking food with his wife. At one point a comparison to French cuisine was made, but she dismissed it as overly fussy. Any argument from us was met with a heavily accented (and loud) “You know NAAA-THING!” She made this declaration several times during our exchange. In any other context I might have been offended, but she was so gregarious and forward and hilariously Italian we just couldn’t help but love her.
Meanwhile, the avuncular proprietor kept bringing out bottles of wine and filling our glasses while giving us a crash course on the different levels of Chianti: Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Riserva, if memory serves. Between you and me, I couldn’t discern much of a difference among any of them, (Bestemmia! Il tuo palato è così poco sofisticato! cries the husband), but I loved being given the opportunity to test my palate. Also, since I had been told several times already that I knew naaa-thing, I wisely kept my thoughts to myself.
At one point, Anne went with la signora back into the shop to make a purchase. Pulling out my phone, I located a picture of our bunny and went inside to further explain what I had meant about not eating rabbit. As soon as she saw the photo she gasped dramatically and threw her hands in the air, explaining in an animated fashion—the way only Italians can—that they, too, had had a Dutch rabbit just like that. She told about the time they took the rabbit on a road trip to Scandinavia with them, and that after the rabbit died, they “cried and cried for one year.” More lively discussion of animals ensued, whereupon Anne pulled out her phone to show a picture of her horse. The Italian lady shrieked, declaring her love of horses, and several minutes of excited equine talk followed.
Eventually, purchases made and bellies full, we said a heartfelt grazie mille and addio with the customary cheek-kisses, and spent the rest of the day aglow in the memory of our effusive cultural exchange and the warm and unexpected generosity of our hosts.
Dave, who earlier had wandered off in search of photo opportunities, had missed the entire thing and had to endure hearing the three of us relive the experience over and over for the remainder of the trip.
Over the next week and a half, we would hike and cycle in the Dolomites, eat fondue in Switzerland, ride the historic Bernina Express Railway through the mountains, encounter a snake on the banks of Lake Como, and drink in the rugged cliffs of the Cinque Terre. We would meet several unique characters along the way, but for me at least, our brief friendship with gli italiani di Siena would remain the most gratifying and memorable cross-cultural encounter of our sojourn.