I often whine about having to travel for work. Or for pleasure. Or for groceries. Seriously, I'd much rather be on my couch at home than, well, pretty much anywhere. Except maybe in my bed at home. I whine about this a nauseating amount because it's true. There is almost nothing about the experience of travel that I enjoy, though I do try and make the most of it that I can. I know, I know, the grass is always greener on the other side, and I have friends (including the beautiful woman I live with) who tell me to shut up with the whining already, and enjoy the little things, like dinner at a restaurant where at least one of the menus doesn't come with a box of crayons. Or sleep in a bed that isn't accompanied by a small squirming mini-me trying to steal pillow space. Yeah, but that's the stuff I miss when I'm not there.
There is one exception to my crotchety cantankerousness, however. When I'm packed and headed to the airport to visit our office in Siena, Italy, my complaining takes on a hollow, empty tone. Probably the smile on my face, and the anticipatory drool collecting in the corner of my mouth when thinking about the meals I've already lined up in my head, they might be giving me away.
I've said it before, but it's worth repeating - Italy has got to be one of the most perfect places on earth. There's a reason the Pope lives here. And it's mostly the menu. In three days, I found a perfect barolo, I ate hand made pasta in a sauce made with bitter chocolate and melts-like-butter tender wild boar meat, found two different preparations of cured lard that were each individually good enough to make my heart glad to sacrifice a year or so of existence, just for one more bite.
I even ate gelato. I'm not a fan of ice cream, but here, everything is different.
Look at the richness of this display! How can you resist this? Everything is made on site, fresh, by an ancient tribe of singing Italian trolls that were domesticated by Franciscan monks sometime in the 9th century A.D. (I made up that last part. About the monks. The singing part is totally true.)
My tradition when visiting is to get a double scoop of the banana gelato and walk down to the Piazza del James Bond, where I enjoy the sunshine, the funny tourist groups pointing their cameras in wild circles, the funnier natives making fun of the funny tourists, and savor the freshly made banana goodness. Then I take out my phone and call my Bride to tell her where I am and what I'm doing. This time I took a picture and sent it to her, with my banana gelato all shadowed in the foreground, which added to the spicy-fun flavor of gooey rubbing-it-in that is better than chocolate.
Siena actually has two of my favorite restaurants in the entire world. Two. In one place. One of which is Taverna di San Giuseppe, which is partly my favorite because it is so much fun to say in a bad Italian accent. (And if I try and do an Italian accent, it's bound to be bad). But it's also my favorite because it is built out of an old Etruscan cave. And they serve giant sides of bloody cow parts (fiorentina) by asking you "how many kilos would you like?". What can be wrong with this?
My other favorite is simply l'osteria dei rossi, which translates loosely as "that guy's restaurant on Rossi street". It's low key and informal, and the owner is always there. He is generally in a bad mood, and is extremely passionate about his food. I think the bad mood comes from his expectation that very few people eating there actually deserve to try his dishes. He quite literally will not let you order a bad food combination. You cannot order bruschetta with tomatoes in his restaurant. Because that is not Tuscan. You will have crushed olives on your bruschetta. You will wait for it to be prepared, instead of being pulled out of a freezer and reheated. And you will complement the chef. Because he was right. It was the right choice after all.
In a momentary fit of bad judgement, my colleague jokingly suggested that I mix my after dinner grappa with my coffee for an 'Italian-Irish coffee'. The owner over heard and almost threw us out.
But this, this is my favorite part:
Check out the sign.
"Here Eat Slowly"
This is the summation of Tuscany for me:
Here eat slowly.
Here sip your wine.
Here try an extra slice of salumi.
Here stroll down the ancient streets.
Here listen to the stones aging.
Here enjoy life.