Art & Culture (le cose belle) / Historical Sites (l'antichità) / Opinion & Comment (pensieri e perplessità)

On sugared ginger, the merits of Colombian coffee, and thunderous hoofs over the plains of the desert to the lost land of Petra

writer's digest badge 2(Small aside: This article won 3rd place in the Memoirs/Personal Essay category of the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Competition. Yay! Okay. Back to your reading.)

Or: Wanderlust

“There is a look in the eyes, and once seen it cannot be mistaken” (Gaiman, of course)

Can I tell you that this story took place many years ago? It feels as though it should have, as though it deserves a better setting than the truth, which is that Saturday morning I stumbled into the kitchen and came to the horrifying realization that I was all out of both dried cherries (for oatmeal) and coffee (for survival), and rapidly drew the conclusion that this simply would not do, breakfast-wise. First world problems, I muttered to myself, and set out determinedly for the family-owned shop which has sat on a bustling street corner of my city for the last 90 years, and which keeps me stocked with freshly ground coffee, dried fruit, and a variety of other delicious, fresh comestibles (albeit for distinctly less than 90 years), because this is Italy and those things exist, that’s why!

Which is how I found myself, much too early in the morning, in the wooded interior of the torrefazione, eyeing up the glass jars filled with chocolates, fruits, coffee beans, and loose leaf teas, thankfully not altogether.

“Have you had it without sugar? Disgusting.”

He meant the sugared ginger that I was peering at, and when I returned his grin, he plucked a piece out of the jar and handed it to me with a pair of tongs. Not too tall, bearded, and rather round, the ever-polite man that is always behind the counter of the store his family has owned for almost a century shares a trait I’ve noticed time and again in Romans—his face is hard until he smiles, and when it opens, his whole countenance changes, and his beam takes the years from his face. He didn’t speak again until I faltered over what coffee blend to buy, and when I expressed that I was looking for something a bit less intense, that smile peeked in again and he puffed up a bit as he said “You trust me, signorina”, and it wasn’t a question, and so I did.

In the year or so since I realized that this storefront was not, in actuality, another bar (of the coffee-and-cornetto selling variety, for which Italy is renowned), and began regularly coming in to deplete the shop stock of goji berries, my interactions with the aproned man have been limited to him advising me for or against a certain variety of hot chocolate mix. I have had much more lively conversation with his wife, who loves drawn-out discussions revolving around the matter of shoes, and so I was surprised when this previously mostly silent gentleman (some people, you just know, are gentlemen) began discussing the differences in coffee culture in Italy and America. It did not occur to me until later that this initiation of conversation was his polite attempt at working out which nationality I might actually claim as my own, that as a native Italian and English speaker I might be hard to place.

He told me about his travels. Slowly, sometime in between his careful pouring of the coffee beans and his equally meticulous grinding of them, he told me of St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, the awe that it unfurled within him as soon as the doors swung open, about the other monasteries in the desert. “There is nothing but sand, only sand, for miles, and then those doors open, and it is a paradise. Un paradiso, signorina. You think you know hard work? The men that created those gardens spent centuries walking to other places where there was water and bringing it back. Dying for it. But then, now there is a paradise there, and it would not have been there otherwise.”

He spoke of the sadness he felt in New York, how it made him homesick. He told me of Mozambique, of the jungles, of the fear of the wild plains and about how all he wanted was to photograph, to remember, to remember. And the lemurs! The lemurs in Madagascar, have I gone, have I seen them? They’ll perch on your shoulder as though they belong there.

By this point, I had totally forgotten the coffee and was standing with my hands on the glass of the counter, eyes wide, at this little man, in his little shop in the middle of not so little Rome, this person whose story I hadn’t ever so much as wondered about. He told me of the importance of traveling with people who truly know where they are, who crave learning, seeking, growing from their travels. “Your generation… No, I don’t wish to speak ill of any of you. You are wonderful creatures, yes? But some of you little ones, you go someplace, you take a commercial guided tour for a day, you go to a party, you take your pictures for the Instamalagrambalam, you go home, you say you have seen it all, that you are a world traveler. What about the real people of a place? The culture behind what they show their visitors? You have to learn the mysteries in order to set yourself firmly wherever you are. Otherwise who will tell you about the stories? Who will tell ours?”

Though I like to consider myself an adventurer (a pirate, if you will), and a fairly well-traveled one, I have never felt so small as I did right then. Not insignificantly small, but the type of small that is young, that thinks it has seen so much but hasn’t seen anything yet, the little you feel when you think you’re big and then the massive doors of new adventures, adventures we haven’t had yet (but we will!) spill open and you can smell the fresh air and you want to go, you want to go right then; and you worry, what if there isn’t enough time for everything there is still to see, but yet there is sheer exhilaration because of everything there really is still to see. And you hope, you hope that it will be perfect.

When I finally left, his wife rang up my bill, slipping a piece of chocolate in my bag, no doubt to assuage my obvious desolation that I was not, at that very moment, feeding bananas to lemurs in Madagascar or climbing (yes, climbing) over high walls to unlock the mysteries of some ancient, sacred or profane, location. When I thanked them both and prepared to leave, she patted my hand, winked at me, and said, “There’s lots of time, you know. And the horses know how to wait.”

“The horses?”

“The horses you can rent in the Jordanian desert. You ride them to the lost city of Petra.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I would lie about something as important as this?”

I stepped back out onto the sunny, bustling neighborhood and was genuinely surprised not to find red sand under my feet, no hoofprints of wild Arabian stallions. Guys, we’re going to Petra. We are so. Going. To Petra.

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