Friday, June 6, 2014

Questa è la vita (exp.) – This is the life!

It’s a beautiful day to be on the Italian Riviera. As I walk to the train station in Monterosso al Mare on my way to the pretty seaside town of Rapallo, there is a brilliant blue sky overhead, a warm sun on my shoulders, and the scent of roses in the air, mixed with the aroma of freshly baked focaccia bread. All I can say is: Questa è la vita. This is the life!

It takes me little more than half an hour to travel north less than twenty miles at a cost of just eight Euros, but the difference in my surroundings is striking. There are similar rows of spindly palm trees and buildings awash in Ligurian pastels, but the architecture is decidedly more refined than in the villages of the Cinque Terre. The windows are hung with the same green Plantation shutters that swing open to let in the light, or close for shade while tilting out to tempt in the sea breeze, but here there are ornate pediments above the window frames. Some are in molded plaster, while others are grandly painted in the fashion of trompe l’oeil.

My feet take me instinctively the Lungomare Vittorio Veneto, a wide and lovely promenade lined with park benches and ice cream stands and colorful umbrellas, anchored at its far end by an old stone castle known, appropriately, as Castello sul Mare, or Castle-on-the-Sea, which my guidebook tells me was built in the mid-16th century to ward off pirates. I wander towards it to take a closer look and it’s then that I see her.

There is a woman in a strapless bikini. Her feet are pressed into the pebbles on the beach and gentle waves are lapping at her ankles. She’s reading a newspaper and judging from the expression on her face, the article is terribly funny because as I stand and watch, her eyes crinkle at the corners and her smile approaches a laugh. I realize something then. What strikes me most—though it shouldn’t—is her age. Her gray hair is nearly white, and it’s pushed back from her face in waves that are reminiscent of a style women used to achieve with pins and curlers half a century ago. She is not young, her figure is not perfect, and she does not care. She is basking in the warmth of the summer sun, and enjoying the cool of the water between her toes.

I love her. I want to be her.

I struggle to remember when I last wore a bikini. It was sometime in my awkward teenage years, just before a growing self-consciousness drove me into a one piece with a flouncy skirt. Was it 1982, the year my family drove south to Florida on vacation? Or was it on one of our many trips to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia? No matter. It was a long time ago.

As I walk back along the promenade, past the Chiosco band stand in all its Baroque glory, I think of my hotel room back in Monterosso al Mare and of my luggage stacked neatly in the corner. I buy a dish of gelato and sink into a park bench facing the harbor. I didn’t pack a swimming suit. I spent more than a year planning this trip. I knew I was coming to the Italian Riviera and it didn’t once occur to me to pack a swimming suit. All of the sudden, I feel silly.

I stand and stretch my legs, make my way to the ferry terminal, and buy a ticket. It’s time to push on. I could take the train, of course, but if I cannot swim, why not sail on a day like this?

It’s a short ride on a crystalline sea that brings me to Santa Margherita Ligure. It’s a handsome resort town with extravagant villas and fountains and yachts moored in the harbor, although there is a romantic castle crumbling on a hill nearby that hints at a far more adventurous past. I stop to admire a statue of Christopher Columbus in Piazza della Libertà before setting off down Via Pelstro, which my guidebook assures me is “the strolling street for window-stopping, people-watching, and studying the characteristic Art Nouveau house painting from about 1900,” which includes elaborate ornaments, sundials, pediments, and false balconies.

For now, though, I’m walking in a determined fashion toward a bakery called Panificio. It’s well past one in the afternoon and my stomach is growling for food, in particular for a square of focaccia bread I spy in the shop window, smothered in thin slices of zucchini. The strawberry tart I order next is just for good measure. The sea air makes me hungry.

I wander as I eat, first to the castle and then to the tiny church of Sant’ Erasmo, which has been blessed by the sea with oars and nets and elaborate ships’ models. Then I climb higher and stumble into the gardens of Durazzo Park, which begin with a formal rose garden overlooking the harbor before descending into a forest below, whose wild walls and twig railings follow a path lined with classical statues grown thick with lichen and moss.

By the time I emerge from the shade, my eyes are squinting into a late afternoon sun. I visit the church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia and shops with a tempting array of local delicacies, but mainly I just roam the manicured streets until my legs give way and the train carries me back to Monterosso.

For dinner, I decide to try a small restaurant on a quiet street near my hotel, called Via Venti. It’s seven thirty and the heat of the sun has given way to an evening breeze that reaches my table outside and causes me to breathe a contented sigh. I fall into an easy talk with the woman sitting next to me, a fellow solo traveler, and together we strike up a lively conversation with a couple from California. They tell us they’ve eaten here eight times through the years, always in pursuit of the same dish—a plate of fagottini pasta, stuffed with pear and ricotta cheese. In a moment of divine serendipity, I realize that it’s what I’ve ordered for myself and when it arrives I can see why they’ve returned time and again to enjoy its pleasures.

As we dine together, they tell us a story. The last time they came to Italy they asked the chef for the recipe so that they could recreate the dish at home, which he graciously provided. With an equal mixture of pride and determination, the wife took a cooking class where she learned to make pasta from scratch, while her husband tracked down the most authentic ingredients and had them imported to the States. And yet somehow, it didn’t work. It just didn’t taste the same. In the end, it was easier—and verging on less expensive—for them to fly back and order it here.

We all laugh.

I understand their disappointment all too well. Through the years, I’ve tried to reconstruct the food I experience in my travels time and again, but with only occasional success. The chocolate fridge cake I made in 2006 was really quite good, but did it equal eating a slice in the cloister of Westminster Abbey? Of course not. I bought a special pan to cook poffertjes after my 2009 trip to the Netherlands, but could my tender pancakes, drenched in butter and powdered sugar, really compare to the plate I had in Amsterdam on a cold and rainy morning in June? Never. I can think longingly about a cup of Angelina’s hot chocolate on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, or the jägerschnitzel I once had in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, but no recipe in the world can bring them back.

It’s the memories we want, more than the food, and a fleeting experience we try to bottle that we can’t ever bring home. Yes, the fagottini was good tonight, but I knew it would be. I had pleasant dinner companions and a fine glass of wine. There was a cool sea breeze on my skin, and under a setting sun my tired feet gave way to a very happy heart.

Will I try to make some homemade pasta with pear and ricotta cheese when I get home to Vermont? Not a chance.

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