What’s wrong with a simple pasta salad?
It’s that time of the year again, when the school term is nearly over and schoolkids everywhere go on field trips to broaden their horizons and take selfies in jam-packed coaches. Florence, with all its art and museums, is a place of pilgrimage for endless field excursions: again and again you see groups of lanky teenagers, boisterous and unruly like a flock of sheep, following their teachers and tourist guides whose umbrellas stand erect above their heads like the flags of Arctic expeditions.
So far so good. The problems start only when your progeny go to school in Italy and take part in abovementioned trips, and you, a foreigner, don’t know what to pack in their lunchboxes. Because make no mistake, food is sacred in Italy. They say that the situation is always critical here but never serious – but there are some exceptions to this rule. Like eating, which is a business not to be taken lightly. That’s why the Italians can drive for hours just to eat in that favourite restaurant of theirs, or talk incessantly about what they have swallowed on a given day. That’s why foreigners living here tend to be timid about inviting Italians to dinner or lunch – because there are hundreds of intricate rules, of what goes well with what, and what needs to be eaten when, and which fork you use when you eat it. And if you weren’t born here and didn’t suck in all that information with your mother’s milk, then it takes a lifetime to learn it.
So when my son went on his very first school trip last year, I was on tenterhooks. I knew that the other mothers would prepare some very complicated school trip lunches, but I wasn’t going to be any worse than them. I was ready for the big battle. I racked my brains, went over tens of recipes, and in the end decided that the best thing to prepare was a simple pasta salad. It was neat and easy, and you could eat it cold, and all I needed to do was to prepare it in the morning and pack it into a super-cool Super-Man lunchbox. Sure, the other mothers would probably provide entire picnic baskets, but my wholesome pasta salad had its simple dignity – I wasn’t going to appear any worse than the others. Closing the Super-Man lunchbox I felt almost smug. This time, I had got it right. It was one of those fleeting moments when I almost felt like, you know… a real Italian mother.
So my consternation was complete when, picking up my son in the evening, I found out that he was exhausted, upset and half-starved. He hadn’t eaten anything, and it had been a tiring day, they had walked and walked, nearly to Timbuktu.
Yet how was it possible? I had put a lunchbox filled with pasta salad in his rucksack!
And then it comes out, the truth. That when kids are on a school trip in Italy, it is absolutely de rigueur to eat a roll filled with, say, ham or cheese for lunch. Get it? A simple roll, and something to drink. That’s it. That’s the right thing to do. And everyone else had known it – even the other foreign mothers in our class had known it – which meant that my pasta salad had been a monstrous extra-terrestrial among thirty happy filled rolls. And of course my son couldn’t eat it. Kids get teased for a whole lot less than that. He had tried to swallow hastily a few tortellini in secrecy, but the rest he had thrown away. Better to get rid of the embarrassing evidence.
Driving back home I thought about the most embarrassing moments of my school years, like those nightmarish PE lessons when the captains selected members for their sports teams and I was always the last one to be chosen – oh, I still recall it, the humiliation of standing there alone. Or that morning when the ten-year-old me missed the bus twice and when the teacher called our home at eleven o’clock I told him that there mysterious red spots had appeared on my face overnight, for which reason I was bedridden.
Oh, yes. The memory of the red spots still makes me blush.
For some reason I had believed that I could protect my son from such experiences – but obviously I had been wrong, for had I not given him a Tortellini Trauma of the worst kind? And what should I do now, start saving up money for a good therapist?
So we went home, and ate a tremendously good dinner, the way you do only in Italy. Yeah, and maybe I even ate some chocolate. Eventually the pasta salad fiasco started to take on less formidable dimensions.
But I did learn one thing that evening. First, that it really takes a lifetime to learn to become an Italian, which means that by the time I excel in it, it will already be too late.
And second, Italian kids eat filled rolls on school trips.