As a child, I spent several summer vacations in Italy with my family. However, it wasn’t until the fall of 1996 when I packed up and moved to Florence for my junior year abroad at Sarah Lawrence that Italy became another home.
This wasn’t always my plan. At the age of six I traveled to England, my first international trip, with my parents. I loved the “Peter Rabbit” books, so we visited the home of Beatrix Potter, and somewhere along the line I made the fantastic discovery that you could eat rabbit (and lamb!) and so, the International Foodie was born. We also visited Oxford University, where I made a serious commitment to attend one day in the future. We even took a photo to commemorate my goal: a tow-headed girl with skinny legs and big teeth, dwarfed by a massive gothic doorway. Oxford was the plan. It was still my plan when I matriculated to Sarah Lawrence College, whose distinguished year-abroad program at Oxford actually weighed into my decision to attend the school. It was still my plan halfway into my sophomore year, when it was time to apply for those various study abroad programs. All I had to do was attend a required presentation given by the students who had returned from abroad, detailing their particular programs. So here’s the abridged version of what I heard at this meeting.
From the Oxford program students: Our classes were all one-on-one conferences with our Professors. We turned in a ten-page essay each week during these meetings. It rained. We went to the Pub.
From the Florence program students: It was gorgeous! We learned how to speak Italian! We studied the Renaissance and saw art; then we made art. They took us to the opera, and to the ballet. And the food! We ate So. Much. Food. And the wine! We drank So! Much! Wine!
Are you with me here? This was the point when hell froze over and pigs began to fly. I was distraught; all my life I had planned for one future, and in two minutes (and several mentions of wine and spaghetti) everything had changed. This was the first time I made a crucial life decision by following my gut…or my stomach, however you want to see it.
From the moment I stepped into Popi’s house and climbed the spiral staircase to my brightly colored loft bedroom, I knew I was going to like living there. For the first trimester, the school required students to live in Italian homes, with the option to stay for the year or move into a rental apartment. Of course (as an independent 20-year old) I intended to move out as soon as I had the opportunity. But I swear, after one bite of Popi’s cooking on that very first day, I was sold. I was NEVER LEAVING.
Popi is a Master Chef. Every single night during the school year I was treated to multi-course feasts that began with every imaginable form of pasta, and sometimes rich, hearty soups like ribolita. This was always followed by a meat course, like roast beef, pork loin, meatballs or sausage, and helpings of vegetables. One of my favorite dishes is Popi’s fagioli: white beans drowning in fresh, homemade olive oil and loaded with garlic. We ate salty spinach, crisp, oven-roasted potatoes, green salads. And when we couldn’t fit another bite into our mouths, we had fresh fruit and chocolate forced upon us for dessert.
Though Popi has been hosting international students in her home since the 1980s, she does not speak English, which gave me serious motivation to master the Italian language. As my skills developed, I was able to join in the dinner table conversation, which was always interesting. Popi is fiercely Florentine, an outspoken feminist, and a patron of the Arts. She has an opinion on absolutely everything. Through the course of the year we became close friends over wine, food, conversation and many episodes of “Beverly Hills 90210”. Popi became my Italian mamma. When my year abroad came to an end, I never wanted to leave, and in many ways I haven’t. I’ve visited Popi at least once (and many times more than once) every year for the past 14 years. During that time, I’ve paraded a long line of lucky friends in and out of Popi’s dining room for some memorable meals.
Today Popi is 79 years old. She hasn’t changed one bit. She’s still hosting students and cranking out fabulous meals every night. She still smokes two packs a day and will most likely drink you under the table. It only took two days after arriving in Italy before I was sitting, once again, at Popi’s dining room table.
We began with Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, one of my favorites. In Tuscany, the sauce is “whiter” than the red sauce Roman classic.
At Popi’s table, you are expected to ask for seconds. Even though you may be mostly full and you have full knowledge of the impending meat course – if you don’t ask for seconds, you didn’t really like the pasta.
On this night we were lucky to have another one of my all-time favorites, sausage and beans, a Tuscan classic. Popi knows how much I love her beans, so she made the dish especially for me. The salty pork sausage simmers in a pot with white beans and sage in a light tomato sauce. There’s plenty of aromatic home-harvested olive oil in this dish, as well as a healthy amount of garlic. It’s a perfect dish to mop up with a thick slice of unsalted Tuscan bread.
After dinner, Popi and I watch a movie together. When it’s time to turn in for the night, I lay awake in bed and listen to the low rumbles of motorinos passing in the night. It’s a comforting noise that reminds me of the time I’ve spent in the house, filled with fond memories. I sleep like a rock. I sleep like I’m home.
2010 Mileage Total: 41983