By JJ Bowman
How do you place the best eight months of your life onto a 12-inch square cloth? As part of a group project, each Florence student designed one patch of a commemorative quilt that will soon hang from the walls of our villa for future classes to see.
Many students mentioned traveling. “50 trains, 3 continents, 1 camel” read part of one square. Another had a map of Europe with red Xs all over indicating the spots he visited. Other students offered Scripture quotes and crosses as symbols of their experience and more alluded to great parties and eternal inside jokes.
I chose to discuss my favorite activity — eating. When I arrived in September, I had two desires: learn how to talk like Italians and enjoy meals like Italians. Soon I will return home one fantastic eater who speaks broken Italian.
As an experienced diner, now I look with nostalgia on my first grand meal in Italy. Back in September, eight students squeezed through a labyrinth of sidewalks to arrive at the restaurant “I Latini.” Ten minutes later a mob of about 50 was finally allowed to enter the restaurant.
Upon sitting down I soon learned what makes every Italian meal spectacular. First, they serve many, many courses. This particular restaurant discourages dining with a menu. Instead, we just asked for everything and the waiters did the rest. A collection of assorted Tuscan salami came first, followed by soup, then pasta, then meats, then dessert. Halfway through the meal we knew that standing up after we ate could be troublesome.
What truly made post-meal elevation daunting, however, was the wine. Before getting to the table, two extra large bottles of wine rested before our eyes. Everyone felt up to the task of downing those and one or two others and then the after-dinner drinks that the Italians assured us help digestion, hopefully not by sending the food right back up.
Besides allowing us to fully participate in Italian culture, the wine played another role at “I Latini.” It relaxed us and our conversations. By the end of the meal, people who had previously only been superficial with each other began sharing stories and secrets, the kind only kept between friends. Others who had been driven wild by another’s quirks soon laughed together about their shortcomings.
In short, these meals made us better friends, and nothing could be more crucial to our existence. Sometimes students in the Florence villa laugh at the absurdity of our situation. Fifty-four people live in one place that serves as their dorms, their cafeteria, their classrooms and their house of worship. Under no circumstances can someone spend a day unnoticed. When alone time most frequently occurs on toilets, it’s important to have the ability to coexist with those around you.
Running away from them serves only as a temporary solution. Two hours or more spent sharing delicious food and subtly smooth yet robust wines offers a long-term remedy. At first the idea seems odd. People who are normally too close together sit inches away from each other and eat a meal, thus bringing them even closer together. However, it is at this time when people vent their frustrations and build a better understanding of those around them.
Many people are convinced that families who eat dinner together will become closer than those who never find the time. After living in a sardine can so long I can safely say that the true unifying characteristic to our house has not been our physical proximity, but the great meals we enjoyed and the conversation we made between bites.
April 04, 2002