There are several ways to experience the intricacies of another culture. For most, the History Channel is as far as it gets. What is usually a well presented, objective account of world history has been reduced to shrugging and saying, “aliens.” Attending university in this day and age presents a much better opportunity to learn about other parts of the globe. Not just through study, but through exchange programs. I was very lucky to attend Hope College for undergrad where I was able to make friends from Jordan, China, Spain and the UK. The best way, of course, to learn about another culture is to go see it in person.
In my previous piece I mentioned the difference between cruising several countries in a week, and actually walking past the docks into the city you’re supposed to be visiting. I’ve never been on a cruise, so I suppose you have to consider my opinion as biased. But the reality is, there is a stark difference between sipping a drink in a bar with a giant boat still in sight, and trying to order a drink in a bar where the majority of communication is pointing and nodding. The contrast between the trips isn’t financial, it costs about the same to fly to Europe and stay in a hotel for a week as it does to reserve a room on Carnival. The real distinction is in the immersion.
Delving into a foreign city, any city really, requires two things: a want to learn, and a willingness to listen. I don’t live in Chicago, so navigating the “L” is the same as navigating a bus route in London. Finding landmarks to visit is as easy as looking at a map for tourists in San Antonio as it is in Dublin. Having a conversation with a stranger at Sonka’s in Terre Haute isn’t any different than talking to a restaurant owner in Rome. Which we did on this trip, and loved it.
One of the minutiae that stuck out to me during our trip to Rome was the number of shops. Coffee bars, pizzerias, restaurants, cheese shops, salumis (butchers), bakeries: they were everywhere. In newer American cities we have communities organized in concentric circles, with workplaces in the center, services and necessities in the second ring and residences in the third. In Rome, everything was mixed together. Because one can stop in one pizzeria instead of taking five more steps to eat at another, there are employees who stand outside enticing passers-by to dine in their establishment. Like club promoters for food.
Thanks to Google Maps, one need not rely on the word of the paid employee. If there is anything that people love to share it is their opinion and there is no more passionate subject than that of food. So one night we were lucky enough to get a table in a family owned restaurant just around the corner from the apartment we’d rented. I’d read that Italians tend to eat late, closer to 9 p.m., because no one leaves work until 8. When we showed up at 7, it was a bit of a surprise to the staff, but they were happy to seat us.
We were greeted by the owner of the restaurant, not much older than me. His chef, a large man wearing a stained apron, was sitting at a table in the front near the door. I was glad to see the chef was a little heavy, because it meant he ate what he prepared. The owner, Gianni Giuseppe, gave us a table up front. The last one available, since the restaurant had all been reserved for the rest of the night. “Just call me Gigi,” he said. He handed us menus and proceeded to describe, in near perfect English, all of their homemade dishes. Gigi claimed their carbonara was the best in the world, and after having it I’m inclined to agree.
For the next two and a half hours Gigi returned to our table from time to time talking about food, life in Rome, how hard his family worked, where we were from, etc. Though he insisted he wanted to know which state in the U.S. we called home, he couldn’t quite place Indiana until we said it was near Chicago. His arms spread wide and he smiled big, “Ah, Chicago!” We learned that he and his wife were trying to keep the family restaurant running. She was one of the waitresses working there. His chef was a close friend, and an excellent cook.
As is typical these days, the subject of the American government came up, and we found ourselves apologizing. “We hate Donald Trump,” Gigi said. “He acts like a child, America is so big, he’s the only one you could come up with?” It gave me pause to consider the notion we have here at home that America is feared and because of that, respected without question. That other nations are jealous of us, and that is why the terrorists want to attack. There we were, sitting in an eatery in the capital of a country that tried to dominate the world, several times, being told that we, in fact, are the new Roman Empire.
“Of course,” Gigi said, “I don’t like my government either, but what can we do about it?” He elaborated by describing his average day. As a small business owner he spent more time in his restaurant than in his own home. But he wanted to make a living, and to do that, required time and effort. If all of his time was going into surviving from day to day, what was left to be actively involved in other affairs? It was a song I’ve heard all across the States. And possibly the most uniting sentiment across the world, aside from food.
We all have to work to live, it’s the way our societies are structured. It doesn’t matter who is in charge of which government. Makes no difference what the tax rate is, whether or not there is universal healthcare, what religion you profess, or for that matter what your job actually is. Ultimately, we’re all in it together. Gigi showed us solidarity at the end of our dinner by bringing out a cherry liqueur and told us it was to help with digestion. He and his wife joined us in our drink, and promised us if we ever needed anything in Rome, to come and see him. Apart from being overwhelmed by the amazing, ancient structures we were able to see, our evening with Gigi was the most humbling experience of our trip. It brought me out of my surreal, historical perspective and into focus on the raw commonality of daily life.