I’ve lived so many lives in four years, it’s hard to count on one hand. It’s grains of sand on a beach. There are not enough of them to account for every person I’ve been in these last handfuls of years. And some of those sand-kernels get stuck in your teeth, crunching down at night, grinding at the enamel of the strongest material in the human body. So many lives, so many losses along the way. In four years, there have been hurricanes and oil spills, president elections and a nephew born here and there. Lives have started, ended, and stagnated in the rich greenery of Western Pennsylvania, the only life I knew and identified as such for twelve years prior. I lived in Italy for a period of time, when I was turning 19. It happened four years ago today. I was so young then. It was when I had no one and didn’t shave often. When I still had a child’s face and the innocence of a madame at a brothel. When I was malleable and agreeable to everyone I met. How I flirted, how I would enchant people to get a few euros or a cigarette. I wore all black because I was supposed to, and I revert to that same color palette when the time seems right, when I want to be someone else. I danced at a discotheque called Coyote and never told anyone that my uncle had just died in Afghanistan the day before. I was whatever I was needed to be, and it broke me in a way smiles break–around the edges at first, then quickly towards the center.
Rome is a palimpsest of a city, handwritten over and over again by the people who write those kinds of histories. I drank out of a water bottle where Octavia gave lunches. I saw the graves of children who died in a fire started by a mad emperor. I craned my neck and felt dizzy when I saw the hand that made man draw in realism yards above my head. I never felt the sense of wonder, I never felt the connectivity to the Why’s of life. I faked it. I would be a palimpsest to myself, too. I would write over who I was at 19 again and again, sometimes scrawled quickly and sometimes in the perfect cursive my mother uses to sign checks. I would feel God in every doorway, and breath a sigh of relief when I saw how the Church glorified death. Or, at least I could hope. I didn’t know any better but to seek approval. To carry conversations for the face-value I gave them, to take the minimal amount of credits to still be a full-time student so I could have a four-day weekend, and to still complain about my classes at 8 in the morning. I had to buy metro cards and lost two of them. I phoned my parents for money three times and ignored their emails until the money hit my bank account. I was ruthless in my need for identity, and molted friends and selves and childhood memories at the chance of living up to a standard I could not identify just then. And so, because nothing fulfilled me at that period of my life, that dark in-between of adolescent and undergraduate, I crawled to the comfort of my bed. I sat and read my Renaissance art books instead of using my student pass and seeing them myself. I felt foolish to go alone. And the one time I did go anywhere myself, I met up with a guy and, after growing bored around midnight, wore his shirt home and deleted his number. I was living through others, and even the majesty of Rome, with all of her womanly hills and curves, were not enough for me. It was during this period that my friend of ten years, with whom I planned our Italian lives with, decided I was no longer good, no longer purely hers. She told lies, and they devastated me to my core. And it was in bed, in men, in other people that I found redemption. And, it was because I was so distracted with my small insignificancies of myself. How I tried myself into believing that the first person you come out to is supposed to be the most influential. How this travesty was somehow supposed to outweigh my uncle’s death, a country’s loss. How watching movies in the common room of the convent I stayed at, avoiding eye contact with the nuns who fed us prodigal students, was a better idea that the Borghese on a Monday afternoon. I was childish and took the lazy route and it’s because of that experience that I never tried to live in New York, where I would surely hole myself up if anything ever went wrong. I regret it all in Italy. How I left things with Sam. How I never tried octopus. How I meant to give the twenty euro I borrowed from a girl named Elizabeth back, but bought condoms and a pistachio gelato instead. How I wore a necklace made from a mink’s foot, given to me by an ex, to the holiest of holy kingdoms. How I was kicked out of a church for being drunk. How I smoked weed on the Spanish Steps with boys whose names I stumbled over. How I drank my espresso with milk and sugar. How I took the wrong metro and ended up at the beach and, instead of just sitting there for an hour, I cursed Italy and all of Europe. How I didn’t call my mom enough and got an AIDS test on my dad’s birthday. How I took a total of 170 pictures, and most of them were of myself. How I didn’t know the exchange rate when I went abroad and only took half of what I thought I would need. How everything meant so much to me for all the wrong reasons. And now, four years too late, I can come to terms with this failure of failures. When people ask if I know Italian, I’ll often lie and say I used to. When people ask how long I lived there, I’ll often lie and say, “A year or two.” And it’s funny to me how easy it is to lie about the experience instead of just doing it, and I’ve tried to learn how to handle my fatigued motivation and really begin to do something. I make lists now to overcome this ennui. List after list of useless suggestions, but I wish I would have done that four years ago, and I could have crossed each off every weekend. I would have said my prayers at dinner with my eyes closed, instead of one eye open at my friends and giggling. I would have read my homework more closely, remember the dates in my longterm memory to pull up now. I would have bought the souvenirs and have the trinkets, because sense memory is stronger than the fictive pseudo-recollection I do to assure myself I was really ever there. I would have dropped more coins into the Trevi and I would have made the promise to others to meet at that very spot, on the meridian of hill to fallen palazzo, year after year. I would have learned to say words carefully and not to cry so much. I would have sat on the roof of the convent and looked at the city I lived in, a city that wasn’t Bedford, Pennsylvania. A city founded by wolves, built by warriors, and nurtured by intellectuals for years and years and years. It should have been my pride that fell, but instead it was the Roman Empire. Because time has no place in a city of antiqued buildings, and both could have happened at the same moment, but I just can’t seem to remember. And maybe I purposefully forgot. But I hope, by the grace of some power–whether it’s my will or God’s–to return to that fabled city just one more time and do the things on my “Would Have” list. And the image I have of myself in Rome is one that many romantics do, but I would give everything to be 19 and in love with the city, a scarf tied around my neck to keep the witch’s breath away, holding a bouquet of flowers, and riding on a bicycle, taking the trail that runs parallel to the banks of the Tiber. And for each petal that fell off that windswept bouquet, it would be another part of me that was grounded in others and it would have gladly fell to the ground. I could have found myself during those days of being alone. And if I ended up at the beach every again, I would stay there for another hour or two, even if I didn’t bring anything with me but myself. It would have been enough. So I want to share my gastronomic memories of Rome, so few and far between. This was before I knew how deeply I loved food, when my palate was content with vending machine biscotti and fast food meatballs. Because I used to think the generic was as good as the original–better, even, because of the money I was saving. But, here is the first food I had in Italy, during orientation. Two staples I picked up at the buffet line that was catered for the 37 of us, which now have been tailored to my ever-evolving palate. I give to you Heirloom Tomato and Chèvre Pizza and Lemon-Buttermilk Panna Cotta.
Heirloom Tomato and Chèvre Pizza
Julia Child (according to Ina Garten) once said that Italian cooking wasn’t cooking at all, but assembling. Due to this paraphrased fact, the portions for the toppings of this pizza are entirely your own. I took what I was craving and made it into a pretty amazing pizza (fits a standard baking sheet).
For the crust
- 1 packet rapid rise yeast
- 1 cup warm water
- 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
For the toppings
- 2-3 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes, preferably different varieties or colors for contrast
- 6 TB pesto
- 2/3 cup chèvre
- Basil for topping
- Preheat oven to 450 (my oven is kind of permanently on the fritz, so I do this first)
- In a large bowl, mix water and yeast with a whisk until combined
- Sift dry ingredients into bowl and add remaining honey and olive oil. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined.
- Oil or flour hands and knead dough onto board for a good 4-7 minutes, until gluten begins to get elastic
- Form into a ball and let rest for 10 minutes
- While dough is resting, prepare whatever pan or pizza stone you’ll be using. I just greased a baking sheet for convenience and it worked great.
- After ten minutes, roll out dough and brush olive oil onto dough to brown crust. Bake for 7-9 minutes until just golden and stiffening from heat.
- While pre-baking dough, cut up tomato and basil.
- Once dough is pre-baked, take out of oven and assemble pizza toppings. Brush pesto, then layer tomatoes and dot top and bare spaces between tomatoes with goat cheese. Drizzle a little more olive oil. Season if you wish.
- Place back in oven for an additional 12 minutes.
- Take out of oven, allow to cool slightly. Sprinkle fresh basil on top. Maybe even a little minced garlic.
- Buon Appetito!
Lemon-Buttermilk Panna Cotta
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Pour 2 tablespoons water into small bowl
- Sprinkle gelatin over. Let stand until gelatin softens, about 10 minutes.
- Lightly spray six 3/4-cup ramekins or custard cups with nonstick spray.
- Heat cream, lemon peel, and sugar in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves.
- Increase heat and bring just to low boil, stirring occasionally.
- Add gelatin mixture; remove from heat.
- Stir until gelatin dissolves.
- Cool mixture to lukewarm, stirring often.
- Stir in buttermilk and vanilla; divide mixture among prepared ramekins.
- Refrigerate panna cotta until set, about 4 hours.
- Serve with fresh or thawed berries and a little honey and lemon juice.
“She had always been fond of history, and here in Rome was history in the stones of the street and the atoms of the sunshine.” – Henry James