Feeling apprehensive, we left our bikes and bought train tickets to Italy’s famous sinking city—Venice. Within ten minutes, we felt that all the canals and gondolas and charming alleyways in the world wouldn’t negate the crowds, inflated prices, and trinkets.
Putting aside our cycle touring hats, we vowed to be good tourists. To that end, we skipped the supermarket and headed to a restaurant for lunch. We looked forward to settling into our corner table and writing a batch of postcards.
Before long, we were interrupted by a voice; a demanding, nasal, unmistakable, American voice.
“WHO. MAKE. PASTA?”
She was one in a group of five. To her travel companions, she said, “I want homemade pasta.” To the waiter—an older man with white hair—she repeated, slower and louder, “WHO. MAKE. PASTA.”
He seemed confused. She tried again, “WHERE. PASTA. MADE?”
There were more American tourists in Venice than I’ve seen in 12,500 kilometers. This woman fit the stereotype of Loud, Rude, Entitled, and Ignorant. As her compatriot, I wanted to stand up, clear my throat, and apologize for my country.
Instead, I concentrated on the handwritten menu. Many dishes were priced at €7 ($8.50); it was not exactly a fancy establishment. I didn’t see any signs of homemade pasta. Olli and I cringed as she continued to berate the waiter in caveman English.
I admit it, I disliked this woman, but I also felt a shred of empathy. I imagined how this she and her friends got to Venice. If they were average Americans, this two-week, maybe three-week holiday was all they got for a year of work—of course they were searching for something exciting.
Maybe they will spend two days on an airplane, then hours and hours staring out train windows, going from one hotel and must-see place to the next, “doing” Rome, Florence, Sicily, and looking for an authentic experience.
Perhaps all they wanted was an authentic meal. To them, this meant homemade pasta.
We’ve been in Italy for a month, but have yet to have homemade pasta. One of the things we did have was this: a message composed of 140-characters from a man who invited us to stay at his house saying, “my grandmother will cook for you.”
Alessandro, while preparing for a bike trip to India, found us on Twitter. For the past two days, Nonna (grandmother in Italian) fussed over us, implored us to eat more, and offered to wash and iron our t-shirts and socks. Nonna—as promised—cooked for us. So did Alessandro’s mother, Franca. We’ve been treated to risotto, huge bowls of salad, and yes, pasta.
But it wasn’t homemade.
A week earlier, we stayed with Lisa and Andrea for four nights in the hills above Verona. In addition to their jobs, they helped on their family’s farm, harvesting fruits and vegetables and making jam and preserves for the year. All of our meals contained something homegrown. For dessert, we visited a farm shop in a nearby village and bought gelato made from the milk of the cows who lived there.
Still, no homemade pasta.
Last month, we stayed with a man I met on my last trip, Marco. During our week-long visit, we swapped recipes. Curry and fried rice for him; spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino—the way his family has always made it—for us. He described the other Minali food traditions, “During holidays, there are ravioli all over the kitchen—12 pieces for each person in the family.”
There it was, homemade pasta, but we didn’t have any.
These recent experiences came to mind as we sat transfixed by the exchange at the next table. The jostling went on for a while before the waiter turned the situation around with more grace than I could have.
“The gnocchi and ravioli,” he explained, “are handmade at the restaurant.”
“But,” he said, “the spaghetti isn’t old.” He repeated the “not old” theme until the woman chuckled and said, “I deserved that.”
Our meal—spaghetti and pizza—was unremarkable. But our neighbors, displaying another American stereotype, Hyperbole, repeatedly exclaimed, “WONDERFUL. Isn’t this just wonderful?”
I wanted to give them a glimpse of Italy as we have experienced it. The Italy of Nonna, Franca, Alessandro, Lisa, Andrea, Marco, and many others.
Traveling by bike has allowed us to slow down and be surprised. We have time to let experiences unfold without forcing them. We leave our notions about people and places at the border and let them reveal themselves to us as they are.
I still cringe when I remember the WHO. MAKE. PASTA? woman, but then I tell myself, Hey, that could have been me in a different life—a life without a bicycle.