Just say yes

With the summer holidays officially over this past Monday, it’s as if the city suddenly sprang to life from the quiet and calm that welcomed me when I moved here in the middle of August.  The stores and stands in my neighborhood that had been shuddered for several weeks—postered with signs reading “Closed for Ferragosto”—have lifted their front security gates to reveal a patchwork of stores, newsstands, and coffees bars.

When I leave for work in the morning, the neighborhood is buzzing about with a renewed energy: old women picking through the selection of tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers from the corner vegetable stand, groups of old men sipping cappuccinos sitting on red plastic chairs outside of their favorite coffee bar, and young people on their scooters daringly dodging through traffic, flouting any and all traffic laws.  So although I enjoyed it while it lasted, the days of a quiet commute are no more.  Rome’s notoriously clogged roadways and crowded trains are now the norm, a reminder that living here comes with a sometimes frustrating—but bearable—price.

There are a number of reasons why I decided to uproot and move to Rome, and those of you who know me best can imagine that food was a prominent factor.  And what a great decision it has been.  In the past three weeks, I’ve eaten some of the best food I’ve ever had.  The pastas are delicious, the pizzas incredible, and the gelato is out of this world.  Overall, I’ve been impressed with the diversity of restaurants here, from the neighborhood restaurant around the corner in Garbatella to the upscale trattorias in Monti in the Historic Center.  But what has truly blown my mind so far is the amazing quality and affordability of everyday basic staples like meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables—so much so that I would almost prefer to cook at home than go out to eat!

The entire food system here works very differently than in the States.  There are supermarket type stores (much smaller than in the US, though) where you can buy all of your food needs and other staples, and they are (controversially) growing in popularity.  But still, most of the food stores are specialized “mom and pop” shops—fruit and vegetable stores, butchers, fishmongers, delis, and pasta shops that only sell their focused set of products.  If you avoid the supermarkets and opt for the local stands, grocery shopping may take a bit longer, but you are rewarded with some of the best quality and cheapest food around.  The tomatoes, the peppers, the peaches, the fresh buffalo mozzarella!  All so fresh and flavorful, and—here’s the best part—much cheaper than in the US.  (Converted to US dollars, for example) tomatoes and peaches are only 60 cents a pound.)

Now buying from the local stand or at the farmer’s market creates a unique set of challenges.  Not all of the foods are properly labeled so I often have no idea a) what the price is and b) in the case of unique meats and cheeses not sold in the US, what exactly the product is.  Then there’s the challenge of actually communicating with the shop owner what product I want, and how much of it to give me.  I’ve quickly learned key words and phrases to help with this process (“basta”—enough, “fette”—slices, etc).

But when they deviate from the script and begin to ask me other questions about my order, my system falls apart.  For example, I was ordering some fresh buffalo mozzarella this afternoon at a Sunday market.  When I took a package of the mozzarella and asked how much it was, the clerk responded with more than the simple number I was hoping for.  I could tell by his intonation that it was a question, so in a state of uncertainty, I said, “Si.”  In all of these types of situations involving questions and food, I’ve resolved to always say “yes.”  What’s the worst thing that can happen?  They give me more food?  In this case, the strategy pulled off.  In addition to the package of mozzarella, he gave me a container of what I later figured out was fresh ricotta cheese.  He was asking if I wanted to make it a combo and buy the 500g of mozzarella together with the container of ricotta, all for only 6 euros—what a steal!

Lucky for me, there are beginner’s Italian classes starting this coming week at work.  I will surely participate!

Other highlights from the previous week:

  • Attending the Roma FC vs Verona soccer game last Sunday night at the Stadio Olimpico, the stadium used when Rome hosted the 1960 summer games.  Judging from the singing and chanting from the stands and the exchange of flares (yes, actual flares) between fan sections of the opposing sides, I’ve come to the conclusion that Italians take their soccer very seriously
  • Celebrating my 25th birthday at a beach party in San Felice Circeo, about an hour and a half south of Rome along the Mediterranean Sea.  A friend I met a few weeks back has an aunt with a beach house there, and he invited me to come to the party for the evening.  The scenery was beautiful, and I got to enjoy a peaceful sunset over the sea.
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