In my five-day “intensive Italian course” in Milan, we learned the difference between a “trattoria” — an inexpensive, family-run restaurant — and “osteria” — traditionally, where men would bring in their own food and drink the house wine, a privilege for which they paid a small fee, hence the origin of the ubiquitous “cover charge” now found throughout Italy, which today includes bread and filtered water.
The teacher, an energetic woman in her early thirties, responded this way when one student asked her what she thought about pineapple-topped pizza, which she had purportedly eaten the night before:
“Va bene, va bene, oh poor Italia. I think” — this is my translation — “that pineapple on pizza, it cannot be. No, this is not pizza. You ate that, here in Milan? Oh, it cannot be. I think that’s the end — poor Italia.”
Two nights later, a friend asked me to come with her to her new favorite local pizza place. From our table, we watched the pizzaiolo swirling dough in the air before topping it and giving it fire in the neapolitano oven. We wound up ordering a pizza with black olives, nduja, and provolone. What would my Italian teacher think? I wondered, feeling guilty as I ate a slice.
I went to the Fondazione Prada, mostly just to have the famous pink cake at Bar Luce. Then I decided to tour the museum. Every time I tried to go in one direction, someone stopped me and told me I was in the “special exhibits” section.
The “permanent” section was in a tall building, and I walked up many, many flights of stairs, only to find myself staring a collection of brightly-colored stainless steel shapes: the bouquet of tulips, a larger and more recent version of which Jeff Koons made as a commission for the city of Paris. The mayor rejected it upon the revelation that he was only “gifting the idea” of the sculpture and expected Paris to pay 3.5 million Euro for its installation. I huffed and puffed, exhausted from the heat and the labyrinthine museum, and wondered if I was the only person who felt that Wes Anderson’s cake was more interesting than the artwork.
At the apartment where I was staying, the floor of the building consisted of a mosaic of multi-colored tiles. The Italians, I thought — every day they walk on art.
Turin was the capital of Savoy, from 1563 until the risorgimiento, and then it became the first capital of Italy. My friend Gaba and I danced through the 16th-century Palazzo, craning our necks at the domed ceiling, pretending our shoes were good enough for those aristocratic floors. We left the building parched, and immediately ate gelatos, after which we felt much butter.
Late at night, we stood in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, and read the late king’s Wikipedia entry. We shuddered at the way his reign handed itself over to fascism, imagining that moment like a dark cloud that hung over Italy for decades. Gaba and I had both recently finished Elena Ferrante’s quartet of novels, and we recalled the scenes in which undercover fascist thugs cause communist gatherings to turn violent.
We often remarked over our 10-Euro aperitivo meals (artichoke crostini, horse tartare that only Gaba was brave enough to pick at, a spritz for me and a Negroni for her) that we were uncannily like the novels’ protagonists, Elena and Lila. But their friendship ended in silent, painful mistrust. Only novels, we reminded ourselves.
From our hotel in Castello we walked, pausing quickly at the little bakery for a frothy cappuccino, to the vaporetto stop. The boat came quickly and we boarded, crossing our fingers we had the direction correct. Twenty minutes later, we arrived to Lido. We headed toward the beach along a street full of restaurants and bars. I pointed at some neon-colored, frozen drinks being served out of a machine.
We asked for one of each color, with rum added. They were strong as hell, so we bought ourselves some tramenzzini, and the little crustless sandwiches filled our bellies just enough. At the beach, we paid 20 Euro for chairs under an umbrella, and then raced over the sand, which was scalding. We had to stop once in the shade of someone else’s umbrella just to generate more strength to run again through the hot sand.
We left the beach in the late afternoon to find a small lunch shack, where we ordered melon-and-proscuitto salad and piadinas. The abandoned Hotel des Bains, once luxurious beach-side lodging, now a vacant shell of previous times, owned by some distant Saudis, beckoned us to sneak over the fence and inside — but our sunburns had exhausted us.
We gazed through the gates at the hotel, where Thomas Mann stayed in 1911, and which inspired his novel Death In Venice. Would it still be here, the next time we returned to Lido, we wondered — or will it be torn down, replaced by something shiny and new?
There is a Burger King now, in Venice. People eat their American fast food hamburgers while walking in sneakers over streets that are over a thousand years old.
Mostly, when I feel this strange sensation that I deeply miss Italy, a place I have only traveled and rather briefly, it comes to me as a smear of all these moments, brushed together into a blurry combined memory, like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, like a gelato with too many flavors. You have to lick it up before it melts.