Now that all the Liebster-ing is over and done with, it’s back to business — I mean, travel — this week, and we’ll be talking Italy, and Milan at Christmas. I’ve already told you all about the magical joy that is the Italian cafe, but today I will delve into something far more complex than a cafe: the Italian psyche. Even though we really just passed through Italy on our last trip to Europe, the place — or more specifically, the people, and their relationship to food — blew my mind.
The thing about Europe at Christmas is this: there are a poop-load of Christmas markets; they’re freaking everywhere! The catch phrase of the trip — said in even the tiniest of towns in which we found ourselves — was, “oh look, another Christmas market!” The continent becomes overrun with rows of cutesy wooden stalls between late November and early January, selling hot chocolate, hot wine, hot dogs, and every type of Christmas tchotchke you could possibly imagine.
Milan at Christmas is no exception.
While the Christmas markets in cities like Brussels and Paris and Strasbourg offered a healthy tchotchke-food mix, Milan at Christmas seems to be all about the food, and Milan’s Christmas Market seems to exist entirely as an excuse to either eat something or buy something to eat later. Milan’s Christmas market is nothing more than rows upon rows of droolworthy food…droolworthy Italian food!
Being in Milan at Christmas, and strolling around the Christmas market, passing by admittedly pungent piles of cheese and sausage, I began to wonder about the Italians, and their relationship to food. I have Italian friends, and friends who’ve lived in Italy, and friends who’ve been to Italy, and I’ve read blogs by people far more authoritative on food and Italy than I’ll ever be, and all of them — all of these collective sources — prepared me for the fact that Italians love their food. But it didn’t really sink in just how much this culture loves to eat until I got there and saw rows and rows of dried Italian meat (Ed: I’m not even going to make a joke here; it’s just too easy). Specifically, it wasn’t until I saw a grown man eat a pastry in Milan’s Christmas market that it really sunk in: these people are CRAZY for food. Before we begin, we should probably examine a few examples of Italian pastry…you know…for science and stuff.
As we strolled through the Christmas market on our first night in Milan, I noticed a man and his wife or girlfriend — both well dressed and looking to be in their 30s — strolling hand-in-hand towards us. Milan, at Christmas, is of course filled with tourists, but the Christmas market was also full of locals – people who walked with a purpose, on a mission to pick up the ingredients for their Christmas Eve feast. In the man’s free hand, he held a grease-stained, thin white paper bag filled with tiny pastries. As we approached them, the girlfriend wandered away to look at some cheese, and the man stood in the middle of the market — oblivious to his girlfriend’s ongoing chatter — and raised a perfect small pastry to his mouth, placing the entire thing on his tongue and gently closing his mouth around it. He closed his eyes. He raised his face to the sky. And he stood perfectly still, slowly biting into the pastry and allowing the sweetness of the pastry to coat his mouth. His face looked at peace, as if he had been momentarily transported TO HEAVEN and he was at last being showered with all the heavenly fruits of a life well-lived. He stood like this for a good 20 seconds, before his girlfriend noticed she’d lost him to a pastry and returned to bring him back to earth and the task of grocery shopping.
I stood in the market literally gobsmacked as I watched this scene. Had this been Canada, he likely would have been on his cell phone, walking, and eating all at the same time — he probably would have shoved the food in his mouth with barely a second thought to the pleasure of eating itself. And it was then I realized the Italians are not like you and I (or at least, they’re not like me). Their relationship with food is far more nuanced than mine.
After that introduction to the role food plays in Italian culture, I’d like to think I developed a slightly more refined relationship with food, but in my heart I know I’ll likely never get the daily pleasure that man probably does from his food.