Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Roar of Venice

As I trudge through the crowded Venetian alleys under the yellow heat of the summer sun, everything around me, above me, below me, and beside me screams chaos. Sweat beads on my forehead as I try to make sense of the madness. I blink a few times, attempting to rub the afternoon haze from my tired eyes. Perhaps lack of sleep and dehydration have altered my ability to see clearly, but the Venice before me is not just a city. Venice has been and remains a menagerie-- a ferocious game of survival of the fittest played out in a deceptively charming landscape caged in by the Adriatic Sea.  

1600 years ago, Venetians fled the mainland for the marshes to escape terrorizing barbarians, driving wooden stakes into the sandy seafloor to form solid foundations across the 118 small islands that still support Venice today. Throughout its turbulent history, Venice has escaped invasion, seen the rise and fall of emperors, buried the bones of St. Mark, and been decimated by the plague.  In it’s golden days, Venice was an invulnerable commercial power, facilitating trade between the West and the East. In 1204, Venetians sacked Constantinople and returned with the prize of four ancient bronze horses that stand behind glass inside the Basilica today. There is no greater reminder of the seafaring city’s history of power and wealth than the muscular stallions that also stand as replicas overlooking San Marco’s busy square. But power and wealth aren’t eternal, and just as the Venetians ravaged weaker empires, one day the rising ocean that once protected the city will, in turn, ravage it.  
In present-day Venice, the infamous pigeons are no match for the walking wildlife. Tour groups of varying ethnicities swarm San Marco Square, like tribes of angry ants headed for the first spot in line for entrance to the opulent Basilica. The disorganized line snakes around the square, and I watch mayhem unfold as a woman guides her two small children to sneak in towards the front. Everyone behind her hisses in irritation, but she growls back indignantly, refusing to budge an inch. The three fold into the safety of the line. She wins. I watch her usher her bambinos protectively through the church entrance. Playing fair gets you nowhere in this sinking city.  

Indian men selling selfie sticks and cheap toys become vultures targeting their blonde-haired prey. The pleas of street vendors, the chatter of tourists, and the relentless cries of violins blend into indistinguishable, ever-present noise. North African men illegally sell their fake Prada purses in packs. Perhaps more impressive than their realistic knock-offs is their animal-like instinct to communicate with each other when the police are in the vicinity. In a matter of seconds after an inaudible warning, they swoop up their products and scatter in different directions. Like clockwork, the police stroll by, turn a corner, and the group reclaims its territory by unfolding and displaying its wares along the same crowded, narrow street.  

The interlinking canals are a winding greenish-brown river in a jungle of flower-lined windows, pizzerias, and erratically numbered apartments. In the smaller passages, traffic jams of gondolas and motorboats are frequent and often resolved in angry exchanges of rapid Italian and exaggerated gestures. On the wide Grand Canal, vaporetto carrying herds of people cruise from dock to dock, always seeming to be overcrowded and short on oxygen. Everyone gives right of way to an elderly woman who creeps slowly off of a packed boat. Her age puts her at the top of the hierarchy; respect for one’s elders is instinctive in Italy. 

Contrasting the obviousness of the tourists, the natives blend into the background, camouflaging themselves among the fanny packs and cameras. They walk with a purpose foreign to disoriented visitors. They know the back streets, the boat schedules, and the best gelaterias. Though they are surely aggravated by the constant clamor of tourists, their livelihoods depend upon the booking of hotels and overpriced gondola tours. Should the acqua alta threaten to submerge the islands, the tourism that puts money into the pockets of the gondoliers, shopkeepers, and tour guides will fade away. The 60,000 loyal Venetians will be forced to abandon their beloved city for dry ground. Even Paolo, a loyal third-generation gondolier with typical Italian pride for his hometown, will have no choice but to pack up his striped shirts and to evacuate. Thus Venice is a delicate dance of tourists and locals that depend upon each other heavily. The locals must guide us, feed us, and transport us. In exchange, we pay too much for pasta, overload on souvenirs, and fill their streets with ruckus. Everyone must sacrifice and everyone must gain to keep the city afloat.   

Somewhere deep within the intricate madness that is Venice lies something magical. It is a uniquely Italian environment that refuses a rulebook, but still manages to churn on 365 days a year. If you look closely enough, you find order. The same chaotic story repeats itself day after day, summer after summer, year after year. Visitors come and then they leave. They buy Murano glass, view the TintorettosBellinis, and Titians in the Doge’s palace, and take expensive gondola rides. Their itineraries aren’t original and their pictures aren’t unique. Locals ferry in each morning, perform their jobs, and leave each night. Still, Venice defies reality.  

Tourists don’t come here to stare peacefully at their reflections in the water. They journey to Venice to lose the structure that defines their everyday lives. They come to Venice to see asphalt turned to water and to ride in boats instead of cars. They come to Venice to find their whole world turned inside out underneath the bright blue sky. The wildness is the mandatory product of a city that rejects normalcy. When the lagoon dwellers drove wooden stakes into the ground hundreds of years ago, they created a place on earth unlike any other. Earth- shattering places don’t greet you with a whisper—they greet you with a roar.  

To Dine in Rome

The all-you-can-eat breadsticks and salad of Olive Garden are the average middle-class American’s prototype of a great Italian dining experience. On weekend evenings and Sundays after church, the line weaves out the door and down the block. Most people in line tap their feet and check their watches with frustration. Once your pager buzzes and the hostess whisks you away to your table, you’re immediately greeted by Joe. If he’s a good waiter by the restaurant’s standards, he serves you in a timely manner with a big smile. You peruse the gigantic menu filled with rich dishes like fettucini alfredo, chicken parmigiana, and sausage-stuffed giant rigatoni.  While you wait, you scroll through your Facebook feed on your phone and let everyone know that you’re at Olive Garden.  

Twenty minutes and two drink refills later, Joe brings out your ridiculously- large portion of pasta, and you scarf it down in record time. As soon as you’re too full to function, Joe brings you the check and you reward with him a generous tip. “It was my pleasure to serve you,” he calls robotically on your way out, as he pockets the extra cash and the next family takes a seat. Your total mealtime is thirty-two minutes.  

Jump to Rome, Italy. The city’s traditional recipes, descendants from a Roman cookbook known as Apicius, are as ancient as their ruins. These recipes are followed in modern trattorias on every block and incorporate locally grown, harvested, or produced foods such as olives, figs, chickpeas, seafood, and cheeses. Though pizza was born in Naples, its predecessor, focaccia bread with toppings, was a Roman staple. My pre-trip misconceptions, based on my Olive Garden visits, are quickly dispelled on my first free evening in Rome. 

My friends and I stumble upon a quaint ristorante in an alleyway near the Spanish Steps. Thinking we would avoid the crowds by dining after eight in the evening, we’re surprised to find the small patio filled with Italian couples slowly sipping vino rosso and munching on light appetizers without any hint of urgency. We wait by the entrance for a few minutes, as waiters move carefully through the tiny gaps between closely-set tables. At last, one waiter notices our presence and gestures nonchalantly at a table that hasn’t been cleared yet.  

Sitting down and rapidly opening our small menus, we fail to recognize half of the dishes listed. Among the pastas are spaghetti alle vongole veraci, noodles dotted with clams, and cacio e pepea macaroni tossed with grated cheese and ground black pepper. They’re simple dishes not overtaken by excessive seasoning, sauces, or additives like the Americanized-Italian we’re accustomed to. The one basket of plain white bread resting before us is a far cry from the unlimited garlic bread of Olive Garden. Bread in Italy is not meant to fill up the customer, but rather as a pre-meal snack or as an instrument to soak up leftover sauce from your main course. Bread enhances, but doesn’t detract from, the chef’s preparations. I begin to think that this chef would be offended to see his recipes slaughtered with creamy sauce and mounds of salt. I begin to think that Olive Garden should remove the word Italian from its dictionary.  

When our meals arrive sometime later, we realize that we have lost track of time in our internet-free conversations and that early evening has turned surreptitiously into nighttime. We delight our taste buds with various seafood, pizza, and noodles. I savor each freshly-prepared bite of my pasta with pesto sauce, making sure that I take the time to appreciate the flavor. Our waiter is in no hurry to herd us out of the restaurant, though my watch reads half past ten and we haven’t yet thought about dessert. With our plates clean and our selves satisfied, we don’t even mind that our waiter takes an extra twenty minutes to bring us our check or that we have to rummage around in our purses for cash because we can’t pay individually. My previous notions that eating here would be anything similar to an Olive Garden experience seem silly. There is an art to eating in Rome that is lost on its American mimickers.  

           Structural differences explain part of the wide separation between American  and Roman dining experiences. Joe, the ideal Olive Garden waiter, is financially dependent upon the tips that his patrons leave for him because his employer only pays him about two dollars an hour. As a result, the American dining experience is focused on quick service. The faster the customers dine and leave, the more tables Joe can turn during his shift, and the more tips he can earn. Italian waiters don’t work for tips like their American counterparts—they are paid fully by their employers and thus less inclined to strive to please the customer. Speedy service is a low priority for the waiter, giving the customers more time to enjoy their meals and to interact with one another. 

Intertwining with this concept of slow service is the Italian concept of dining as a social affair. Americans worry about resolving their hunger and moving on, evident through the popularity of fast food chains and microwave dinners. It’s the result of a culture with a lack of dining traditions and the need to make everything time efficient. In Rome, they view eating as a time for conversation and for enjoying the camaraderie of friends and family, which is a product of their strong familial bonds and of their focus on community. They aren’t in a hurry because their priorities are different; they are focused on the nature of their overall dining experience.  

            Romans are more concerned about the quality of the food they put in their mouths over quantity. They rank more time-consuming, freshly prepared food higher in importance than food prepared with time-saving shortcuts. Though large portion sizes are becoming more common because of the influence of the United States, traditionally, a Roman meal consists of small portions of three or four dishes. Multiple courses provide them a variety of tastes. The average serving of pasta is only about 100 grams, contrasted against American portion sizes that triple or quadruple that amount. An excess of pasta leaves no room for additional taste bud thrills. 

A combination of historical, social, and cultural factors has shaped the art of dining in Rome, a tradition that has been passed down with each generation. It is, simultaneously, all about the food and nothing about the eating. To dine as a Roman is to savor the experience as much as the flavors. It is a far cry from stuffing your face with a pile of processed noodles at Olive Garden. This art is something I discovered in a quaint ristorante in an alleyway near the Spanish Steps, and it belongs to this bustling capital city of the boot-shaped peninsula called Italy.