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.

The anti-Sam’s Club.

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.

A friendly warning to vegetarians and vegans: you may want to shop elsewhere.

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.

Il nostro nuovo amico italiano che adora conigli e cavalli e ha forti opinioni sul cibo!

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.

A hierarchy exists whether I can taste it or not.

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.

I am not your dinner!

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.

26 thoughts

    1. That! Is! Amazing! What a small world! 🌎 I looked on Google Maps as I was writing the post and was sad to see their shop listed as “permanently closed.” However, I don’t automatically assume it’s COVID-related. I could easily see them being retired. I don’t have a picture of the man, but he looked older than the woman.

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  1. Sounds like a fantastic trip. The Italians, who are my people by the way, are far and away the world’s most effusive people. They shout, wave their arms around, make strange hand gestures and shout some more- and that’s if they are in a quiet mood. Their trains don’t run on time but they mostly move around some, except if there’s a strike. Their train tickets don’t list the time of departure, only the week. They do poorly on Wheel of Fortune because they are always buying vowels. They have the misfortune of living next door to the Germans and French, always trying to figure out which side to join when trouble starts (and usually picking the wrong one). Their military tanks cost extra because they have to be installed with back up lights and white flag holders. Yet they remain the joyous, family oriented, pasta cooking savants- just the type of people you encountered in Siena. That Dave guy sounds like a bit of a moron however. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Ah, the Italians. So full of color and life – you are lucky to call them “your people.” Don’t be too hard on Dave, by the way. He’s a really nice guy and an excellent storyteller. We’ve given him the nickname “Raconteur,” which you may or may not know means “storyteller” in French. He really should have his own blog.

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  2. I’ve not been to Siena, but I’ve been to Florence (albeit ages ago). Italy might be a small country, but little do people know just how incredibly diverse it is in geography, food, and culture. Looks like you had lots of fun in your time there, with plenty of Chianti to boot! Enjoy la dolce vita, that’s for sure!

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  3. What a great story, I love that you said you should have been offended, but instead really liked this lady. I was afraid though that you were going to say she fed you rabbit without understanding, but in the end it had a happy ending:)

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  4. I love your photos, particularly from Florence; it’s such a stunning city. I can’t believe that after all the trips to Italy, we somehow never made it to Rome or Siena. But than again, Italy is packed full to the brim with so many amazing places to visit, you can easily spend a lifetime exploring it and still not see everything.

    I’m glad to hear you had an amazing time exploring Europe; meeting and interacting with locals is one of the best parts of traveling even if you don’t speak the language. Did you write an article about your experience riding the Bernina Express I bet it was amazing! Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😀 Aiva

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  5. We visited Italy several years ago and weren’t 100% on Rome, but loved Florence. Now I feel like we really should go back and check it out again. Your photos are great and I love the story of the connection you made at that little shop. Those are the truly magical moments in travel we all hope to have. Of course, being fed copious amounts of Chianti by big-personality Italians is the stuff of dreams for just about anyone!

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    1. Florence was great for us, too, but I found I actually liked Rome better. It might have been because there was a fashion convention taking place in Florence when we were there and the place was overrun. I really should go back there again when it’s a little quieter.

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  6. What a remarkable story and a wonderful experience! Italy has long been on my bucket list…for the food alone (though I’m also a big fan of the gladiatorial era and would LOVE to see the Colosseum). Pretty sure I’d need at least a week to explore the entire boot.

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  7. I have been to the UK, France, and Germany, but absolutely loved Italy. Visited the country for 2 weeks. Went to Rome, Naples, Capri, Amalfi, Florence, Venice, and Lake Como. Loved every bit of the trip.

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  8. I so badly want to go back to Italy and it’s stories like this that make my yearning even more intense. The people, the food, the wine, and the history are so full of character in Italy that just one visit was not nearly enough for me.

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