I’ve been in Italy for four days, and my diet is getting somewhat erratically out of hand. One day I’ll engorge myself on a breakfast of croissants with jam, butter, and nutella; a lunch of pizza, followed by cinnamon gelato for dessert; then a dinner of housemade pasta with a side of cold cuts, an assortment of meats and cheeses, washed down with a glass of dessert wine. If I crave something sweet to top it all off, which I usually do, there’s always room for a slice of chocolate cake. But the next day, still feeling full from the evening before, I end up skipping breakfast and eating one fluffy thing for lunch, then making a small bowl of ramen back at camp for dinner. Of course the next day I’m hungry again and put this cycle on repeat!
In case you haven’t noticed, food has become the main theme of my blog. How inevitable, as I love experiencing the food of different cultures more than any other part of travel. Truly, and it surprises even me to say this, I would rather plan my destination itinerary around famous Michelin-starred restaurants, coveted local eateries, and world-renowned patisseries than around, say, museums, historical attractions, or even beaches. I definitely make these a priority, too, but nothing in travel is of higher importance to me than al fresco dinners with priceless views, scrumptious breakfasts, chancey streetfare lunches, and rare culinary finds, such as the pistachio butter I obtained at Collefiorito, a chocolaterie I found while wandering the cobblestones of Rome.
The pink stack of frosting roses in the window cast a spell over me that drew me inside. The store keeper told me the jar of pistachio butter I was holding was their last, as they had to wait for their next seasonal shipment of pistachios to arrive from Sicily. Mom, I am saving this jar of preciousness for you, and I have refused to let Rob even open it! Fortunately my travel partner doesn’t mind my quirky obsession with wine-soaked figs and fine chocolates. In fact, he seems to have been seduced by Europe’s culinary delights himself. I believe good food to be essential to one’s happiness. To quote Virginia Woolf, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” This is most surely my motto. I think Virginia and I would have gotten along.
Rob and I departed from Dubrovnik, Croatia on the redeye ferry Tuesday evening, arriving in Bari, Italy early Wednesday morning. It was a bleery one, as Rob and I had hardly gotten any sleep en route. The RV that we’d parked in the ship’s belly felt as hot as a sauna, and when I moved up to the passenger’s lounge and lay down in a table booth, the air conditioning was so cold that I was shivering. The ship’s crew were gruff and unhelpful, typically Croatian–every question we asked was a stupid one, and every answer they gave us a non-committal gesture of sarcasm. After a breakfast, if you could even call it that, of warm milk with museli and stale bread without butter, I was anxious to leave the ship and Croatia behind once and for all. Plitvice Lakes was stunning and Dubrovnik was a pretty city, but again, I center my travels around my food, and Croatia failed royally in that category. I was very ready to move on to Italy’s famed cuisine.
My sister Madeleine had reminded me on one of our video chats of the pizzeria Da Michele in Naples that Elizabeth Gilbert sang praises of in her memoire “Eat, Pray, Love”. Naples was on our way to Rome from Bari, so it seemed just a matter of natural course for Rob and I to stop there for lunch. We programmed Da Michele into Mazi the GPS and gladly disembarked the Jadrolinja ferry.
The city of Bari was not Italy’s best first impression. Rob and I were surprised at how slummy it looked. High rise apartments were run down and littered with laundry above, garbage below. It smelled of smog and fish markets.
But as we made our way west, the urban grittiness soon faded away to the lovely Italian countryside you’ve all seen in movies. It was still a very hazy morning, but that probably had to do with the controlled fires we passed in the hills. The acrid smell of smoke made its way into our RV, and while we saw no leaping flames, trails of smoke went straight up into the sky, joining the clouds that were hovering rather lowly. I continued to read aloud to Rob from “The Secret History of the World”, and we are now three quarters of the way through, out of the Dark Ages and into the mysteries of the Rennaissance!
We were sleepy, but arriving in Naples perked us right up. The traffic was unbelieveable. Every driving experience that Rob and I have, we compare to that dreadful day in Prague. If Prague was a tight squeeze, Naples was positively insane. Insane, I tell you. At least the Czech drivers stayed in their lanes except when switching.
In Italy (and not just in Naples, as we’ve found out), drivers pass all over the place, ride the lane divider line so they’re hogging two lanes at once, race each other, yell at one another, honk constantly, never use blinkers, and on top of that, there are just as many scooters as there are cars, if not more! I felt like we were driving through a swarm of angry bees as the scooters and motorcycles kept whizzing by, narrowly missing us and us narrowly missing them. I couldn’t believe when scooter after scooter kept passing us on the right as we exited, plenty of drivers on the phone. Rob is especially horrified at how many motorbike drivers talk on the phone while navigating through bumper-to-bumper cars, sometimes with their shoulder scrunched up to hold their cell to their ear if both hands were on the handlebars. They drive their scooters with their heads tilted, through traffic, legs spread on either side of the bike to half-walk their way around cars. While we drove through Naples’ nonsensical cobblestone roads, ever-hungrier for our pizza, I thought it appropriate to play my album of The Ultimate Best of Fellini and Rota, a collection of songs Nino Rota composed for various Federico Fellini films. The bouncy trumpets and galloping strings somehow made the drive seem more fun, like we were on a comedic adventure instead of a potentially dangerous bad decision. But aren’t they usually the same thing?
Since Da Michele was on a tiny street we didn’t even dream of finding a parking space on, we parked our RV on an overpass further from the city center and took a taxi. When we explained to our taxi driver that we had an RV, he exclaimed that driving through Naples was, “Not possible!” Rob laughed and told him that it was, as we’d just done it. I don’t think he believed us. While we hadn’t seen any towing signs, we didn’t want to risk leaving our RV unattended for too long and so ordered our pizzas to-go. (In Dubrovnik, we’d come up a very long flight of stairs from a day at the beach to discover a boot had been locked onto our RV’s tire. Since then, we’ve read parking signs extra carefully.) I didn’t mind ordering to-go, as the ambiance at the pizzeria wasn’t especially beckoning. It was a rather unassuming little hole in the wall, flourescent lit with small white and green tiles from floor to ceiling. Since it is famed because of “Eat, Pray, Love”, at times the line outside the door can be as long as 40 people. Think Pink’s Hot Dogs in LA. Fortunately for Rob and I, there were only five people ahead of us. We each ordered a classic margherita pizza with double mozzerella. Excited and starved, we hurried back to our RV to relish our hard-earned lunch in our own privacy, without the fear of a parking ticket or a tire boot hanging over our heads.
I opened the lid to the box gingerly, breath stopping as I smiled down at the dankest looking pizza I’ve ever seen. Fresh mozzerella melted beautifully into the pinkish-orange sauce, with only two basil leaves in adornment. I cut myself an uneven slice, folded it in half as grease ran down my fingers, and sank my teeth into the chewy crust. It was perfectly charred from the wood oven, and salty. Juices from the cheese and tomato sauce exploded inside my mouth, a true taste bud orgasm. Never before has a simple pizza stopped my heart and stunned my mind into ethereal silence, not even my beloved fennel sausage one at Pizzeria Mozza in LA. This tender slice from Da Michele was so soupy that I could slurp the mozzerella-laden sauce right off my taco-shaped crust. I felt high.
I had leftovers for dinner, and for breakfast the next morning, and you’ll just have to take my word for it that I could never get sick of eating this delicious, humble-looking pizza.
Rob and I found a campground outside Rome called Village Flaminia, just north of the city center. It has a four out of five star rating, according to the European campgrounds book I snagged from the RV rental shop while still in Frankfurt. If this place only gets four stars, Rob and I are dying to see what a five star campground looks like. Village Flaminia is a beautiful resort, making our pretty campsite outside Vienna seem average. What blew me and Rob away the most when we first got here are the showers–every person gets their own shower stall, privately enclosed, with their own changing area, also privately enclosed! And there were so many of them! Beautiful blue tiles and tall, bright windows showed off how sparklingly clean the bathroom areas are kept. It’s the little things like shelving in the shower stall that you begin to greatly appreciate once you’ve been on the road for a little while. Now I can put my shampoo and conditioner on a shelf at eye level, instead of bending over with my wounded back to pick it up from a scummy floor. Now I didn’t have to worry about my towel falling off the door hinge and into a dirty puddle; I could simply hang it on the hook provided. Instead of putting on my after-shower products precariously, trying to hold different bottles in my hands and between my knees to avoid setting them down in more scum, I could line them up neatly on the bench in the changing area and luxuriously smooth them on–in my very own stall! I’m telling you, it’s the little things. Don’t take your spacious American bathrooms with your tubs, counters, hooks, and medicine cabinets for granted! Enjoy your fresh towel mat when you step on to it next, and think of me wearing my VS Pink flip flops to avoid getting athletes foot! Another fun bathroom fact about Village Flaminia: there is always classical music playing from ceiling speakers as you shower or use the bathroom.
Speaking of bathrooms… The one thing that decidedly makes Rome a city I would never choose to live in are the lack of seats on the toilets. That’s right. Every public toilet I’ve seen here is a squatty potty. I thought I left those behind in second-world Croatia, but no. Italy, for whatever reason, doesn’t deem it necessary for there to be seats on their toilets. Just a cold, white, narrow-rimmed bowl of porcelain. There are two holes where a seat should be screwed in, but not a seat in sight, never mind a lid. At first, as Rob and I drove from Bari towards Naples, I refused to use the bathrooms at the gas stations we passed, thinking there must be better ones ahead once we’re nearer to a more civilized city. I told Rob I can’t even imagine taking a shit standing up. Peeing while squatting is hard enough, and I was forced to do that, but at least it’s briefer than number two. I managed to go two uncomfortable days before I finally found a toilet with a seat, inside a private restaurant. A poo never felt more relieving. I know I may need to lose my standing-while-pooing virginity eventually, but for now I stubbornly choose constipation until I find the occasional restaurant with a seat on its toilet. Unless I can sit down and relieve my bowels properly, I’d rather not relieve them at all. Boys, if this will forever change the way you look at me, don’t even bother reading the next paragraph unless you’re man enough to accept that girls are humans, too, and you can handle our bodily functions with an earthy, biological acceptance.
Ladies, we all know that having your period while on vacation sucks, but how many of you have had your period in a land of squatty potties while camping? Maybe one or two of you I’d wager. Trying to change a tampon mid-hover is a challenge. Your thighs tremble with tension from squatting, as if you’re tampon-changing during a cardio ballet plie. Signs forbid you from flushing your used tampon down the toilet, and you don’t want to risk an embarrassing overflow scene, so your legs scream at you even louder as you try to extend your reach to dispose of said tampon in the trash bin that’s just a few inches too far from your anchored stance. You hope things don’t get messier as you unwrap a new tampon and then try to figure out how to insert it. From behind, your find, works best in this hover-squat position.