I fell hard. Italy was full of delights for an 18-year-old: gelato, shoes, and handsome men come immediately to mind. And then there was the history and the art. Who would guess that cornmeal, a New World food from back home, would be so enticing?
When I was 18, I went on one of those lengthy European trips. You know the kind, maybe you went on the same adventure? You took all your money (all $800 of it), a one-way airplane ticket (don't tell my son who's plotting an escape to Chile), and an address book filled with names and addresses of everyone you, your parents, your parents' friends, your piano teacher, and her friends knew. Or had heard of.
Back then it was a real adventure. Without email, instead of hitting internet cafes (which also didn't exist) when you arrived in a new city you headed first to the post office, to see if there was any mail awaiting you in General Delivery. You made friends on the way, traveled together for a while, and then parted, planning on meeting up again at the cafe by the train station in the next town in 3 weeks. Sometimes it worked out, other times you missed each other, and never met up again.
Midway through my trip, with my traveler checks (in $10 and $20 denominations) dwindling, I finally made it to Florence. I stayed at the Locanda Anna, in a room with 4 other young women--for less than $6 a night each. I still remember Robyn from Adelaide, on her yearlong grand tour; Robin, a struggling actress from New York, and Suze from Maine. All of us were being careful with our money, though I think we each bought some shoes. We were in Italy, after all. I have fond memories of my pair of green leather boots with a gold cuff.
I know, from looking back at my journal, that I went to the Uffizi and the Bargello. I also know, from my journal, that I managed to eat 4 scoops of gelato at Vivoli's my first night there: Chocolate ("amazingly rich"), zabaione, rice, and chestnut ("I don't know when I've had such a perfect flavor").
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But without my journal as a reminder, what comes back is the Mercato Centrale, with its poultry and butcher stands--piles of tripe, rows of hanging song birds, whole boars and venison. In mid-November, wafts of truffle scent moved through the air, enveloping me suddenly as I turned a corner or passed an aisle.
But it's the fried polenta that comes back to me the most. We found it one evening after walking through the Mercato. On the Via dell'Oriuolo we found a stand run by a sweet old woman. All she sold was bags of fried polenta. Cut in cubes, about one-inch square, they were deep fried, quickly tossed with salt, and put into paper cones. The outside was perfectly crisped, the inside still a bit creamy. So hot they burned your mouth, so good you couldn't wait. Surely just four ingredients: polenta, water, salt, and the oil that cooked them. How could they supply so much flavor and texture? They might not have been the healthiest dinner, but on a cold November night, they were perfect for this gelato-shoe-lover on a tight budget, and without a proper coat.
Florence was the only place I found fried polenta on my trip. A few months later, tired of traveling and missing home and family, I called Grandma and borrowed money for the flight home. She was always up for helping us back from our adventures.