Small towns, slow food

Because I clearly needed a vacation from my already vacation-like life, I took a train to Italy last month to visit Maria, an old friend from Oakland and Berkeley who is currently studying gastronomy in Pollenzo (the birthplace of the “Slow Food” movement).

Maria and most of her other culinarily-inclined friends live in a nearby town called Bra. I’ve visited the large urban tourist destinations in the rest of Italy (e.g. Rome, Venice, Florence) but I was looking forward to spending time in a more anonymous small town. I was not disappointed—the uniqueness of its location (in the Northern Italian region of Piemonte) was evident from the start. I arrived at the surprisingly run-down station of Torino Porta Susa, which included hole-in-the-floor “restrooms,” and somehow figured out how to purchase a second train ticket to Bra from a machine that was yelling at me in heavily-accented English while a gypsy asked me for money. I didn’t know you had to punch your ticket before getting on the train (what is this, the 1950s??) and there was no sign telling me to do so, but luckily I was never asked for my ticket on this particular ride. The train itself was nice, but where was the detailed map indicating the route of the train and all the serviced stops? Clearly, I was not in Paris anymore. Luckily Bra was the terminus of the train, otherwise I would never have known where to get off—almost none of the deserted-looking stations we passed had any signs on them whatsoever. But after about 45 minutes of staring at the regal, awe-inspiring Alps in the distance with only a vague uneasiness as to where on Earth I was, I arrived at my destination. And it was well worth the effort. Bra is beautiful, quiet, charming…adorned with gorgeous buildings, cobblestone streets, and a few central stylish cafés.

And the food, oh my goodness, the food! It is amazing to me how a country can be such a strong signifier of food, and I can think of no other country that signifies food as blatantly as Italy. Hanging out with gastronomy school students didn’t hurt either. I was lucky that I happened to visit while Maria and her classmates did not have class, so we more or less let the wind make decisions for us, decisions that primarily revolved around food. Shall we take a walk to the market? Shall we enjoy an espresso outside in this beautiful weather? Perhaps an afternoon of kneading dough, exchanging conversation, and sampling thick, sweet, authentic balsamic vinegar straight from Modena. Or maybe a glass of Piemonte red wine with various kinds of cheese—aka aperitivo—at a dimly-lit local bar. Maria, being the incredibly kind and wonderful host that she is, kept asking me if I was okay with the plans for the day (or more the decided lack thereof). I kept asking if she was crazy.

Like the food movement it spawned, life in Bra is slow. In Paris, I generally stay true to my notorious reputation as a fast walker, enjoying the confidence of knowing my way around and the heat it builds in the winter cold. But in Bra, there is no point in walking fast, as arriving at your destination within its miniscule land area can only take you so long anyway. Not to mention, it would feel entirely out of place. Being there, then, was like stepping into this parallel universe that reminded me that it’s okay to move slowly, and to let the smallest of decisions wash over you in an un-rushed, meditative way. Even the Italian language, with its seemingly-unnecessary extra syllables and overt musicality, is like a tribute in itself to the art of slowness.

Unsurprisingly, Maria told me what I myself have thought about Paris countless times—that living there often felt like a dream. I could certainly see that.

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