Thursday, March 29, 2012

Softly, As We Leave You

We sprinted to Italy after our unsettling experiences in Morocco back in early December, but we reluctantly eased out of this wonderful country, taking as long as possible to let go. We hung on with our fingertips, not wanting to leave her warm embrace as we prepared to head north and east. After our stay in Chianti and a few additional days in Florence, we took the train north to treat ourselves to a second dose of fairytale Val Gardena in the Dolomites, stalling our departure with a final few days of skiing. Rather than abandon Italy cold turkey, we decided to spend a few days in Ortisei, Italian on the map but Tyrolean in language, culture and demeanor, to temper the shock of heading straight into Austria. The bus ride to Val Gardena from the Bolzano train station confirmed that we were indeed venturing back into the Italian Tyrol. A beaming, burly-bodied woman boarded the bus and sat in front of us. She was perfectly coiffed with a 1-1/2 inch crown of a salt-and-pepper braid affixed on its edge such that it stood on its side encircling her head like a halo. She sported a traditional black wool vest and long skirt, both brightly embroidered with multicolored flowers and black boots that laced up to the middle of her shins. She and the other locals chatted with each other -- and occasionally threw a comment our way, not realizing we were “outsiders” -- in Ladin, the uncommon language spoken in only a handful of communes of the Dolomites. Yes, we agreed, it was definitely a good decision to return to Val Gardena – the perfect path for tiptoeing into Austria while still enjoying Italy.

Our days on the slopes were blissful. It was spring skiing at its best with sunny skies (and the inevitable raccoon tans from our sunglasses), the thermometer at close to 60 degrees (no bulky thermal layers needed), nonexistent lift lines (we were consistently alone on the quad chairs) and the snow rather slow towards the base (I can deal with the mashed potatoes stuff as a trade-off for the magnificent conditions on the summits). Red was the color of the season as the lion’s share of parkas, pants and related ski paraphernalia were crimson, scarlet and ruby. We marveled at the number of older people – those who’d already celebrated their 70th birthdays – who schussed down the trails around us, every one of them in incredible shape and all accomplished skiers. On several occasions we pointed out graceful, controlled figures weaving down difficult terrain and discovered as they zipped by that they were senior citizens. We can only hope that that will be us in twenty years, we agreed, fingers crossed. Being among the international ski crowd with such a mix of languages on the slopes, hearing not a word of English until we got to the lunch hütte to order a mug of beer and a glass of wine to accompany the sandwiches we’d packed from the morning’s breakfast buffet was an experience we relished. At the end of each day on the mountains, we had the incomparable Hotel Gardena Grödnerhof, the inn we’d fallen in love with on our previous visit with Chris and Caroline, and the nicest people in the world to return to, including Angelica, the loquacious ginger-haired 6-year old from Rome assigned with her family to the dining room table next to ours. Angelica was a bundle of enthusiasm at every meal, chatting away with her parents in melodious Italian punctuated with dramatic hand gestures and animated expressions across her freckle-sprinkled face about her day, the food and how she was feeling overall. She was the epitome of what we’d come to love in Italy.

Joe and I spoke at length on chair lifts, over drinks, at dinner and after coffee, about all we’d experienced and loved best over the course of our three months in Italy. We’d learned to relax about things that drove us crazy at home (like unexpected signs announcing sudden closures), doing our best to emulate the Italians who are patient, forgiving of delays and gracious about mistakes. They appear to recognize that people are human and not automatons of daily perfection. We continue to repeat our favorite Italian words: la macchina (the car), andiamo (let’s go) and allora (the equivalent of “alors” in French or “so” or “well then,” in English). The first is simply so melodic and pleasing to the ear when pronounced by an Italian, the middle word is essential (who doesn’t need to be able to say “let’s go”) and the latter, another lovely-sounding word, is the perfect conversational segue.

We assessed our Italian eating experiences and tallied a new reckoning. Coming into Italy, the rankings on the Gap Year Culinary Scorecard were as follows: France in first place by a considerable margin, Morocco in the number two slot and Spain a distant third. Our appetites were ready when we’d arrived in Italy and as expected, the fabulous food did not disappoint. The old favorites provided familiar delight (lasagna, pizza, pasta fagioli and insalate miste), but we developed brand new appreciations for newly discovered Italian tastes. Tender, olive oiled Roman artichokes; gnocchi swimming in creamy Sorrentina sauce; pan-fried scamorza cheese; arancini (fried rice balls with a variety of flavors inside); pasta arrabiata (pasta with an “angry” spicy tomato sauce); bruschetta smothered with all kinds of toppings like olives, eggplant and anchovies, not simply tomatoes; saltimbocca alla Romana (sautéed veal that “jumps in your mouth, Roman style”), with its savory sprigs of fresh sage; all were among our favorites. Is it any wonder we never tired of Italian food? I will readily admit, however, that the buffalo mozzarella (which we’d never realized is actually made from the milk of a water buffalo) never tempted my taste buds (it was just too bland and the texture didn’t appeal) and the bread is only occasionally as good as what we consistently found in France. For special, gourmet, celebratory meals accompanied by delectable wines, France wins the trophy -- hands-down. Any country that came up with the notion of combining creamy goat cheese with a crisp salad or creating a surprising foie gras crème brûlée simply has to be awarded the haute cuisine cordon bleu. However, when it comes to delicious daily fare that one can find all over the country at almost any ristorante, trattoria or tavola calda, Italy takes the prize. We enjoyed so many meals in so many terrific, comfortable eateries up and down “the boot” and each one confirmed what we’d read about dining out in Italy. People don’t go out for a unique or different dining experience. They go out to eat for more of what they have at home on a day-to-day basis: food that is basic, delicious and familiar but without the long hours of shopping, preparing and cooking. The updated tally on the Culinary Scorecard has been rendered: Italy is at the top, France is nipping at its heels and then come Morocco and Spain.

We’re finally, slowly, half-heartedly saying arrivederci to our good friend, il bel paese, since Austria, Central Europe and Holland await us. (I can only guess how the cuisine of these countries will score, but who knows, a juicy wiener schnitzel may surprise us...) Italy, you were a warmhearted winter companion and we’ll always remember your kindness. Allora, andiamo -- it’s time to move on, so softly we will leave you.

Pictures of our adventures:

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