Since moving back to campus for the spring semester, like every other returning study abroad student, I have been asked — in line at Saxbys, sitting in friends’ apartments and on the treadmill at Yates — the well-intended but fairly perfunctory question: “Oh my gosh, how was abroad?” This outburst is usually followed up by the equally innocent “Wait — where were you again?” In reply, I would beamingly respond, “The Villa in Florence.” Such a statement elicits one particular question that is the catalyst for the verbal exchange’s departure from a superficial run-in to the time commitment that one of my unforgivingly observant friends recently named “The Harvey Vortex.” The question is: “How was the food?”
Before I departed for the Villa, what the answer to this question would be was a subject of great excitement in my mind and in the minds of my Florence-bound peers. Personally, I imagined it might resemble the scene in the incredibly cheesy but addicting movie “Eat Pray Love,” in which Julia Roberts shares an intimate moment with a plate of spaghetti all’Amatriciana, or Roman spaghetti with tomato sauce. Set to the joyous trilling of an Italian opera singer and intercut with shots of a sultry, midday Mediterranean make-out, the scene depicts Roberts sprinkling freshly grated Parmesan onto her luscious serving of carbs and consuming it with impish relish. The act of eating this pasta expresses nothing less than total adoration, whether it is religious or romantic. With a final swish of red wine, Roberts concludes her culinary experience, glowing with contentment.
That I did not find myself in immediate gnocchi nirvana upon my arrival at the Villa caused me great consternation — a common side effect of believing in the reality of romantic comedies. The food, though delicious, was simple, structured and unassuming. Portions were hardly what I would consider indulgent; furthermore, the total absence of snacks on the Villa premises — aside from an enticing bowl of old bananas — restricted our eating to the scheduled mealtimes of pranzo at 1 p.m. and cena at 7 p.m.
With the purchase of our Florence bus passes, this “problem” was very quickly solved. We discovered havens like All’Antico Vinaio, a tiny shop that serves giant paninis with a side of advice — however, if the sandwich-makers don’t approve of your tastes, they make you change your order, and Gusta Pizza, a city institution which costs half as much as Pizzeria Paradiso and tastes 1000 times better.
I had plenty of Julia Roberts moments, the best of which occurred at the historic Buca Lapi restaurant when I shared pappardelle with tomato sauce and bistecca alla fiorentina — translation: a rare, salty, sizzling steak — with my visiting sister. We even found a restaurant that provides bottomless red wine for college study abroad students in its basement — and it was actually pretty good.
But out of all of these mouth-watering memories, the one lesson that I have taken back home to campus comes from that Villa dining room: keep it simple, structured and unassuming. Eating at the Villa taught me that eating well doesn’t have to mean avoiding gluten like it’s the plague. We ate pasta every day, but we ate it in small portions and with plenty of vegetables on the side. The Italians don’t drench their meals in butter, ketchup, mayonnaise or other types of fake, calorie-loaded fillers; they cook with herbs, olive oil, salt or black pepper. The result seems indulgent, but it is actually as “clean” as it gets. Most importantly, I learned from the Villa that I don’t need to snack; after the first few days, my cravings for handfuls of things completely disappeared because I was having complete meals at lunch and dinner. When you surround yourself with real food and allow yourself to enjoy what you are eating, you don’t miss the snacks.
Here at Georgetown, our diets are in a constant state of flux. We starve ourselves. Living off of sad, little protein bars and coffee after coffee, we run around campus doing the endless list of things that we feel are necessary. We binge when we are stressed or tired and gorge on garbage when we finally allow ourselves a break. In Italy, student organizations do not use “free pizza” as an incentive to draw attendance, and as far as I know with my limited Italian, there is no translation for our verb “to late-night.”
American college culture, and American culture in general, is seriously missing something when it comes to the basic, human act of eating — which is why I am trying to eat as “Italian” as possible this semester. I make an effort to be conscious about the foods that I put into my body. I schedule time in my day to sit down for real meals and reach out to friends for their company. This is the true essence behind the dramatized emotion of Italian cuisine that “Eat Pray Love” capitalizes upon: to the Italians, eating is a religion, and it is love. It is a way not only to connect with other people, but also to take care of yourself.
So there you have it — that’s how the food was in Florence.
Elizabeth Harvey is a junior in the College. ABROAD WITHDRAWAL appears every other Friday.