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At least he’s well “bread”

2 Jul

To whom it may concern —

I entered my bakery today with two other girls and an empty stomach.

I left (after saying goodbye for good) with six pieces of dessert, six pizzettes, and one telephone number slipped under my gifted tray of goodies.

Rome: The land of very forward men who make very good pastries.

(And yes, I’m coming home without a ring on my finger…but only because he forgot the cannoli.)

I want you, I “knead” you, oh baby, oh baby

30 Jun

Friends, Romans, countrymen —

I have been wooed. Oh, yes. I have been wooed, and I have been wooed sweetly, and I have been wooed in Italiano.

(Dad, unclench your fists for one moment and keep reading. Trust me.)

It all started with my arrival in Trastevere five weeks ago as a poor, unsuspecting, supermarket-brainwashed American. I spent the first two days so overwhelmed with fruit and cheeses, wines and outdoor markets that I could barely walk straight, instead bumping into the person next to me as I craned my neck towards the closest open food shop. I began cooking, and then I began learning to trust other people’s cooking.

And then, on the seventh day, when even God was busy resting, I found it. My bakery.

I could smell it from down the sidewalk as I entered my neighborhood, exhausted from a day of traversing the city. My stomach grumbled in recognition of a friendly locale. “Pizza,” it said loudly (anyone who has ever traveled to Italy knows that here, your stomach acquires a persona of its own). “I want THAT PIZZA.” Without further discussion, I grabbed Ashley by the arm and pulled her into the open doorway. I saw cookies. I saw full loaves of bread stretched out on open wooden counters. And I saw at least fifteen different kinds of pizza, all waiting for me to devour them. And so it was that on that fateful day of June, I had my first taste of the best pizza in all of Trastevere.

Pictures can't even do this place justice

Of course I came back, at some points almost every other day. When I didn’t buy pizza, I came to buy breads in full loaves, fresh, warm bread to use as bruschetta or eat plain with cheese, apples, or honey. I let the rest of my friends in on the secret, and soon all of the girls began going to my bakery.

The best part about the place is that the workers there speak no English; neither do any of their customers. It is hidden on a side-street away from tourists, and the crowds of locals who jam it for lunch are so big that they have to use a ticketing system during the afternoon to deal with the volume of requests, like the kind we use at the deli. After our first two times of using our fumbling Italian and hilarious hand gestures to order, we began to be recognized by the people who worked there. One man in particular always lit up when we walked through the door and gave our standard greeting of, “ciao!” One night, he snuck an extra cookie into the wrapping of our bread. The next time we came in, he complimented our dresses, asked us to hang around, and gave us two free pizzettes. I had made a good find with my bakery; my bakery and I were getting along swimmingly.

And then, today, I took Frances there for lunch. We were sweaty and hot and tired and anxious for food after a morning of tracing Mussolini’s footsteps across the city. And despite the busy room, as soon as the man saw us enter, he broke into a grin. “Ciao!” he called out and helped us maneuver our way into the line. We both got sandwiches of fresh bread, tomato, arugula, and mozzerella and sat down at the bar to eat. Within minutes, I was thirsty enough to go buy a water (for the record, that was the first time I have ever bought a water bottle in Rome outside of a restaurant meal; the fountains are so plentiful that I just fill up my own bottle in the morning and bring it with me wherever I go), and when I got up to the register, our baker friend put up his finger. “Wait,” he said.

He returned from around the corner cradling the fluffiest, most incredible pastry I had ever seen. “Shhh,” he motioned with a finger over his lips. “For you,” and he slid it across to me with a smile. Never had I eaten a pastry this good — right out of the oven. It had some kind of light chocolatey cream inside and powdered sugar coating its edges. And when he saw that I had split the pastry in half to share with Frances, he ran back and got one for her, too.

Even my talkative tummy was now silent, happy beyond words.

A few minutes later, having made all kinds of inappropriate moaning noises as I inhaled my dessert, I turned back to the counter behind me. “MOLTO bene,” I said, trying as best as I could to get across the concept of heaven through hand gestures. “BENISSIMO.”

He smiled. “One minute,” he motioned again with his finger. And there it was, on the counter in front of me. Two MORE pastries, two more piping hot pastries, filled with raisins and sugar and flaky bread and who knows what other sweet sweet nectar of the gods.

I had thought I was full before I had even made it through the first pastry. How would I ever eat a second? Finally, one of my genetic inheritances kicked in for the win. Yes, Mom, you guessed it — your secret, extra stomach pocket specially evolved to hold unexpected dessert SAVED THE DAY. And oh, it was so. so. SOOOOOO. good.

Close-up.

And that's when I knew: I'd been training for this moment my whole life. Pastry, PREPARE FOR DOMINATION.

Before leaving, I had a long conversation with my friend-turned-dessert-superhero. Or at least as long of a conversation as I could have in broken Italian, French (he didn’t speak much outside of “oui, francais!” which made me temporarily very excited), and fragments of English. In fact, I’m not really sure what I actually said to him during those few minutes. However, I do know that he got very sad when I said I would be leaving on Saturday and that he called me “bella, bella, bella.” When Frances and I started to leave the store, saying “A domani!” or, “‘Til tomorrow!” he shook his head. “Venerdi, come venerdi,” (Friday). “Okay, venerdi!” I nodded back. He motioned at my camera, then at Frances for a moment. “Picture with her,” he said, pointing at me. “Happy, happy me,” I said, pointing at my stomach.

Readers, I warn you now. I am going back on Friday, and if he gives me so much as one more cannolo, I may not make it home.

(You’re all invited to the wedding.)

In Flight

31 May

(Though I am already in Roma – or, as Lady Gaga would say, “Roma, Roma-ma-a” – I am catching up on posting after two days without Internet access, so this post is one that was written in my journal on May 29 while I was midflight. Stay tuned for more from our abode in Trastevere! Hint and non-spoiler: Rome is AMAZING. I’m still trying to find the right words.)

There is something about this trip that makes me feel as though I am in decisive forward motion all the time, shedding layers of weighty thoughts with each mile of my approach. But, as I sit here on AlItalia’s plane, whizzing through space towards this country, I still haven’t been able to figure out exactly where the mental magic comes from.

What are you, Italy? What are you that makes me want to open my whole heart to you, and my ears to your language, and my mouth to your nourishment, and my eyes to your sun, without hesitation? I am back in childlike mode, accepting and appreciating based purely on sensory experiences, in the face of this mother of all locales. What are you that your native tongue reverberates so full in my diaphragm and eases off of my curling tongue? What are you, Italy, that makes so many of us sigh and draw the earth into our lungs with deep nods of recognition when your name comes up, even if we have never visited you? What are you, that your politics are falling apart and your rough leaders allow even rougher rings to lead some of your cities, and yet we still lend you our support and black out that section of history involving Il Duce? What are you, that makes me sit here like the crazy protagonist of a quirky romantic comedy, listening to blaring Italian opera through my headphones and insisting on requesting things from the stewardesses in phrasebook Italian rather than English, just to feel myself further embedded in your culture? (For the record, “acqua” means water, and stewardesses are incredibly patient people.)

I really have been trying to absorb the sounds of Italy as much as possible, if not the entire language. For the past two days I have listened to more than 20 Italian language podcasts, tried to sing through my old Italian sheet music again (Che Bella Cosa from Treble Choir Days being my favorite shower tune – sorry, housemates), and walked around the room with my phrasebook glued to my hand. The language is so immediate to me, so unadulterated  by rules or odd vocal contortions, that speaking even the simplest phrases out loud gives me that sense of forward movement again. This is different than French – with French I feel more regal, perhaps, or as if I am part of some sophisticated secret, but never boundless.

I realize as I write this now that perhaps this is the reason Italians are known for gesticulating so wildly: their language removes the bounds and bonds between emotion and tongue, makes words fly, and loosens their thoughts so thoroughly that their joints loosen, too. It leaves them flapping their nerve endings at the sky, this feeling, and signals, “I am raw and open and tumbling with things to say — world, come meet me, cheek to cheek.”

…Okay, so I get overly poetic about Italy. Even I’ll admit that I descend into prose usually reserved for Hallmark anniversary cards. But what so much of this journey is about is finding out why I react this way – what makes these phrases pour out of me with no regard to traveling propriety (i.e. being realistic instead of overwrought about my destination.) This is just another place, after all. So why does it keep so many of us under its spell?

Even the idea makes us giddy. Mixed in among the interpretive gestures of the past few days have been some hilarious turns of phrase, fueled purely by the pleasure of trills on the tongue. A few days ago, I learned (thanks to the Dating and Socializing section of my phrasebook) that I could proposition an Italian with the simple phrase, “L’accompagno a casa?” or “May I take you home?” (My father, upon hearing this, promptly requested that I learn to translate “My father is from Texas and owns a large shotgun;” I’m still working on that one.)

And my mother – well, my mom has spent her past few days stringing together the only three Italian words she knows (“Ciao!” “Bella!” “Mangia!”) into exclamatory phrases, despite the fact that she has no idea what she is saying. “Prego!” I yelled to her from upstairs as I was packing. “Buon giorno!”

“Ciao!” she yelled back. “Ciao, bella! Ciao…bella, ciao, MANGIA!”

And on that note, now that the in-flight meal has arrived, I must say ciao, my bella readers, so that I can, indeed, mangia.