I don’t know about you, but my earliest impressions of Italian culture were based on the famous spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp. You know, the one where Tramp’s friend Tony sets up a table in the alley, the two dogs eat pasta under the stars, and Tramp pushes the last meatball over to Lady with his nose. When I was five, this seemed the height of romance to me. A few nights ago, I found myself sitting at a table in an alley in Genova, Italy, eating pasta under the stars with Rich, and for a delightful moment, I felt that real life and this favorite movie memory were merging in perfect harmony. I was only sorry I hadn’t ordered meatballs, so I could push the last one over to Rich with my nose. (Rich has expressed tremendous gratitude that I didn’t attempt this, especially in public.)
Sophia Loren is a big fan of spaghetti
It’s no secret that we all carry around movie memories that deeply affect how we view the world. As we sat in that alley in Genova, drinking cheap wine on a sultry, moonlit night, Rich and I started talking about all the celluloid scenes that make up our images of Italian culture: The Godfather, Romeo and Juliet, Under the Tuscan Sun, La Dolce Vita, A Room with a View, Tea with Mussolini, The Italian Job, The Bourne Identity, Moonstruck, the Agony and the Ecstasy, Sophia Loren love triangles, Fellini’s surrealist fantasies, the lives of the saints the nuns showed us at school, and countless others. And out of a lifetime of movie memories, we choose the ones that strike a particular chord in us. For some, Italy is all about the high life in the Riviera; for others it might be art, or religion, or political power, or the warmth of being part of a family (even if it’s the kind of Family that makes you offers you can’t refuse).
And if we’re lucky, when we travel, we have moments that strike that chord in a deeply agreeable way.
"Juliet's balcony," added in 1936
“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life,” Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth. “I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
As I write this, I am in Verona, which (as the town is very quick to remind you at every turn) was the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Today, we’ll probably see the famous “Juliet’s balcony.” Of course, this is no more Juliet’s real balcony than 221B Baker Street in London is the real home of Sherlock Homes because – and I think you can follow my logic here – they are both fictional characters. But thousands of people visit these places every year to have an experience that lets them connect their inner and outer lives in a way that sparks the rapture Joseph Campbell is talking about.
Francesca in le Gramole, Genoa
Part of the way I connect with Italy is, of course, the food. (Think of Clemenza, teaching young Michael Corleone how to make spaghetti sauce when the men “go to the mattresses.” Think of the pasta scene in Eat, Pray, Love. Need I go on?) The day after our Lady-and-the-Tramp dinner, Rich and I went to an olive oil tasting at a tiny, back street olioteca. Having lived nearly ten years in Seville, we were able to hold our own in a lively discussion of the rival merits of regional varieties, and pretty soon our hostess, Francesca, was fetching stools so we could sit for a more leisurely sampling, bringing out more kinds of olive oil she wanted us to try, and finally, with the air of one bestowing a magnificent treat, running to get her special, 25-year-old vinegar so she could drizzle it over slivers of Parmesan cheese. The flavors were wonderful, but the real pleasure was sharing them with someone who took such obvious delight in savoring life’s essentials.
Over the years and many miles we’ve traveled together, Rich and I have learned that the moments that really resonate with us are far more likely to come in little, back-street food shops and shabby trattorias than in five-star restaurants. These are the moments that make us who we are. As Sophia Loren once put it, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” Or in the words of Federico Fellini, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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