May 17, 2016
Well, what once looked like a distant possibility is now over. For many months, I was stressing about finding the perfect program, then coordinating meetings between different departments at Tufts trying to receive course credit, and finally attaining meetings with my Dean to understand my options if I couldn’t achieve said credit. This was over six months ago before I set off on my first (or maybe it’s my second) study abroad experience. Now I’m done. But I figured I should probably write down some of my biggest and personally most important takeaways. The following pages will include random reflections, stories, experiences, and of course it will include restaurants and recipes and food. If you want to skip all of the other stuff, that’s fine, because in all honesty, next time I go to Italy, I’ll probably skip it too and just jump to my favorite restaurants. But it’d be too easy if I began with the food, so instead, I want to start with a general observation that in retrospect you’ll probably say “Obviously!” to, but in reality is something I that I really came to appreciate.
trying to learn about fashion
Over the course of this semester, I was thankful and lucky enough to travel to at least 15 different cities ranging from Budapest to Belfast. While every city is different, there are also numerous and striking similarities among them all. From the historic cities like Cordoba to past-Soviet cities like Prague to the modern ones like Geneva, all of these cities share some extremely basic elements. Almost every city is fortified. Whether it’s by rivers acting as moats, mountains acting as barriers, or literal walls serving as, well, walls, cities are built defensively. In addition, many of these cities are built on water to provide an outlet for trade and commerce. While, if asked what do all cities share, this may seem like an obvious albeit dull conclusion, I found it intriguing to think about and see first-hand. These factors though illustrate a deeper point to me. Every city is filled, nearly completely and absolutely with people who simply want to make a living, return to their family, and be happy. Today’s world is filled with some conflict, but the media’s over-coverage of death among foreign societies connotes total dread and doom. It masks the reality that everywhere, nearly everyone just wants to live their daily life. Politics and war and conflict interrupt and distract from the centuries and millennium long ideal of safety and happiness. While studying abroad was fantastic for so many different reasons, I think this point, however obvious and simple it may sound, was one of the most important lessons for me to internalize: people everywhere just want to be happy.
A second thing I learned is about myself. I really don’t care where I go or what I do. What became really clear to me is that the people I am with truly make the biggest difference in how much I enjoy the overall experience. Although I kind of knew this, or assumed it going in, and thus never truly traveled completely solo, there were still many times where I was staying in a hotel or hostel alone, finding breakfast or dinner alone or even exploring a city alone. These lasted for mornings or afternoons, never days, but I still was not as happy as I was doing nothing with other people. Maybe you’re different, I don’t know, but I personally enjoyed sacrificing visiting new cities or touring new places for spending time with friends.
One of the many walls in Belfast
Thirdly, I want to take about Belfast. If you know little to nothing about Belfast or its history, read the first few paragraphs of its Wikipedia page and then the first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia page titled “The Troubles.” (I knew nothing and have read these blurbs a couple of times already). In short, Belfast experienced a brutal conflict – one could even call it a civil war – between a faction of Irish who wanted Northern Ireland to rejoin the rest of Ireland and another faction that wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Over thirty years, thousands of people, many included civilians, were killed. Over the past twenty years though, things have begun to settle down. The first thing that struck me though was the fact that there are walls, literal twenty-foot walls, separating parts of the city. In fact, residents were recently polled if they liked the walls and wanted the walls kept, rather than removed, and many said yes, because it made them feel safer. Additionally, both sides feel a right to the land. Both feel they are morally correct. Both have people who are willing to kill for their beliefs. And both have dragged generations of their families into this conflict. As I was learning about the situation in Belfast, I kept coming back to, “Well, how did it end? How did these people learn to coexist?” The simple answer I found was time. Over time, both sides felt the strains of the conflict. Both sides simply got fed up with the constant killing and fear and the status quo. A striking feature though was that throughout the conflict, individuals from both sides were still working together. Today people still work together, but kids from opposing sides who would never interact, now go to school together, play together, and live together. The walls still stand and likely will continue to stand, but a new, peaceful status quo is being built. Maybe something like this can begin to happen across Israel. Israelis and Palestinians already work together, but their children do not learn together. From speaking briefly with a resident of Belfast, this sounded like one of the most important factors. He said his kids were “Snapchatting and Instagramming and Facebooking with kids who he would have never associated with.” Even though I don’t think he really understands how Instagram works, his point is still so true. What if we could begin to have Israelis and Palestinians Snapchat each other? Maybe they would see how similar they truly are. Maybe they can begin to form a new status quo. And as I mentioned earlier, isn’t this what people truly want, to live their own life happily?
Doesn’t get much prettier than that… Cinque Terre
Now, let me talk about food. For the past three months, I have been studying food, cooking food, and eating food like I’ve never done before. I like to think that I’ve learned a few things. First, food has a remarkable effect on behavior. Simply put, being hangry (hungry + angry) is a very real thing and avoiding it by eating causes great joy. No sh*t. But, I think this simple concept should be truly understood and internalized. When people eat, they are happier, more generous, and more jovial. Politicians have learned this. They host fundraisers and events centered around food. They serve their guests delicacies and treat them to opulent meals and in return expect financial payback. Imagine if in your life you ate before every tough or difficult or upset decision that had to be made. Imagine if you paused arguments to eat truly good food. Do you think you could continue being mad or angry or upset after reveling in true taste? I doubt it. This leads me to the second thing I learned about food. There is difference between enjoying what you are eating and being awestruck by what you are eating. I can enjoy a slice of Domino’s pizza or a Chicken McNugget from McDonalds, but I will never sit back in my chair, close my eyes, chew and smile. I will never be amazed at how the chef created this dish or dreamed up the flavor combinations. These feelings of joy that arise from eating amazing food don’t have to come only from restaurants though. Cooking, putting effort – time and work – into the food often yields a similar feeling. Cutting up carrots into tiny diced cubes, shucking corn, or tenderizing a piece of veal are all labor intensive, but their result is unparalleled. Working in a kitchen, feeling the heat from the grills, cutting my fingers on my knife, crying from onions all contributed to my greater feeling of satisfaction when I plate my risotto or serve my soup. These efforts can create the same feeling of true satisfaction achieved by Michelin chefs. But while I can beg you to cook to truly reap the benefits of the food, it is also my duty as a foodie to share with you many of favorite “eateries” from Florence.
So let’s let this conversation begin with pizza. My favorite pizza, pure and simple, was Gusta Pizza. Its combination of soft, rich crust topped with some of the freshest, purest tomato sauce and mozzarella create one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. For a more interesting pizza, one topped with burrata cheese, roasted peppers, prosciutto or salami, try Mangia Pizza. The guys who work there are awesome and their pizzas, while different from Gusta in that their crust is crunchy and their pizzas rectangular, also use fantastic ingredients and create delicious pies.
The dude from Mangia Pizza creating his work of art
My favorite pasta is at Vini e Vecchi Sapori. Order the Pappardelle with Duck Ragu. The papparedelle is a wide, thin, long piece of pasta coated perfectly in a succulent and rich duck sauce. The duck is wonderfully tender and shredded and creates a simple, amazing pasta dish. I also loved the truffle pasta from the truffle shop in the Central Market. I had an overall fantastic meal at La Bottega del Buon Caffe. Everything we ordered was fascinating and delicious. Some highlights though include potato and chocolate foam, served like a soup and an amazing tortelloni stuffed with pigeon.
I had great gelatos everywhere, but some of my favorites were Eduardo’s, La Carraia, and a small place directly south of Gusta Pizza. I never learned its name, but it was really good!
Florentine Steak. Cooked to perfection
Lastly, I did a lot of cooking! It was fascinating to learn about the true variety in Italian cuisine. In the States, we say we’re going to an Italian restaurant and assume it’s all going to be the same. Through cooking different recipes, I learned about the differences in cuisine and how they represent the different histories and cultures of the different regions. I will start with an example about the region I was in, Tuscany. Tuscany, and Florence specifically, are known for a type of bread called Tuscan Bread. This is pretty much what we consider a sourdough in that it’s a large loaf with a hard crust and a soft, airy middle, but its different than most in that it has no salt. We made Florentine Steak, which is a three-inch thick T-Bone steak cooked, so the middle is nearly raw. If you can get over the fact that is purple and chewy on the inside, you will be amazed how tasty it really is. Another Florentine staple that we made was Ribollita. Literally meaning reboiled, this is a vegetable bread soup that is cooked once, sits overnight and then cooked again the next day. Its creamy and chunky and homey and warm and amazing.
Overall, my semester in Florence was an incredible overall experience. It wouldn’t have been the same though without my roommates and friends that I made, the trips we went on, the places we saw or things we did. From the simple things like sitting on the Arno sipping Champagne to the emotionally painful of cleaning our bathroom to the confusing of navigating a foreign city, everything experience and day and night were incredible.
Cinque Terre also had these bittersweet words for me on my last trip
So, I guess, thanks Mom and Dad! It wouldn’t have been possible without you!
Noah is a current student at Tufts University studying at Florence University of the Arts in Italy, during the Spring 2016 term.