On the Importance of Beauty, Good Food and Meaningful Connections
I have found my felicità in a bowl of spaghetti alla carbonara. I am in Rome with my mother and we have stumbled upon this cozy brewery in one of Rome’s narrow streets, about a four-minute walk from fontana di Trevi. You’d expect the place to be packed with tourists, but to our amazement, L’antica birreria Peroni is dominated by Italian guests: large families dining in gusto, laughing and arguing vivaciously. Just as you’d imagine Italy. I am so happy I could cry, but I don’t want to set my mother off, who cries at the first formation of tears in my eyes. You’d think we are Italian, but we are not. Who knows, we may have been Italians in our previous lives. I have often wondered where my fascination with Italy, the Italian language and the Italian culture comes from, as I have no ancestral ties to this country (as far as I know). Even my name, although traditionally Hungarian, is a city in Italy. And it was Dante’s Divina Commedia that got me through the worst of the pandemic and my divorce proceedings. Italian is my pillola della felicità that has the instant power to transport me from the depths of despair to a place of hope. É cosi.
I don’t know what could taste so divine in a simple dish of bacon, beaten eggs and pasta and what is the secret sauce that produces my tears, but I suspect that the magical alchemy is not only in the spaghetti. It has been a difficult couple of years and I am only now starting to catch my breath. I didn’t know that what my soul so desperately craved was history, arresting architecture, imposing gates and nourishing food until I tasted it. In Rome everywhere you look you are confronted with ancient history and are humbled by all that human beings once produced. It is a city that invokes reverence even from those allergic to religion. Rome feels almost a cruel reminder of everything that I miss so much in my day-to-day life in Montreal: a decent view to begin with. Some say Rome is the most beautiful city in the world and staring at my spaghetti alla carbonara, I am inclined to agree with them, wholeheartedly.
My mother digs into her ravioli ricotta e spinaci unaware of the emotional tornado inside me. I thank her for this early birthday present. “Szívesen, kislányom,” you are welcome my little girl, she says. It makes me smile how she calls me ‘little girl’ even though I will be turning forty-seven in June. My mother and I haven’t always been so close, and I can’t pinpoint the exact moment this has changed. I suspect my separation five years ago had something to do with it. My mother was a single mother raising two young children in Israel, having escaped my volatile, controlling father in Hungary. It wasn’t an easy upbringing. My brother and I grew up in a kibbutz, while my mother worked day and night to keep us afloat in Tel-Aviv. When I went through my own separation more than 6,000 km away from her, all my mother could do was fume on a Budapest tram about what she perceived to be an unjust situation.
My mother and I share many similarities. We both can cover some serious ground walking (twent-three km a day on average while in Rome) and work tirelessly towards our goals, even if it means cleaning, caulking, plastering, or painting a bathtub. We share a passion for Fellini’s visionary films and an admiration for Oriana Fallaci’s audacious writing. We pause for a good coffee and enjoy a decadent cake in the afternoon. But there are also the notable differences. I often refer to my mother, fondly, as a “tank of a woman.” She marches ahead, gets things done at a record speed and is an original thinker. While I, sometimes to my mother’s dismay, put my love on display and will not hesitate to cry in public. But at the l’antica birreria Peroni my mother and I “fold together” (from the Latin “complicare”) – complicit to the sinful crime of consuming carbs, gluten and sugar – everything that North American doctors advise against.
I recently caught an interview that entrepreneur Marie Forleo conducted with wellness doctor Mark Hyman about “the secrets to a long healthy life.” Dr. Hyman boasted that according to his epigenome test he was fitter at sixty-three than he was in his thirties and forties. He attributes this success to his 1-1.5 hour long daily routine of strength and resistance training, sauna or steam followed by an ice bath, healthy aging shake and a healthy diet free of sugar and refined starch. But in the same forty-five minute interview he also mentioned ninety-five year-old Sardinian shepherd Pietro and the fifty-three year-old CEO of Nestle Health Science, who were in an enviable shape. Pietro, who retired at the age of ninety-four spent his life hiking up and down the ragged Sardinian mountains herding his sheep, ate local food and was surrounded by a close community of friends. The Swiss CEO of Nestle Health Science was eating cake and chocolate but was also riding his bike up the hill to work for two-three hours. A vital equation Dr. Hyman failed to consider in these two people’s diet is the view. Both the Sardinian shepherd and the Swiss CEO were daily consumers of the most spectacular views as they were going about their business. They didn’t have an hour to spend on sauna and ice-baths, didn’t officially train, and didn’t consume health-boosting shakes, but they surrounded themselves with beauty – and fed on it, daily.
In the wellness business there is much debate about the right kind of diet, the right kind of exercise and the most effective ways to reduce stress, but little talk – if at all – about the impact that your natural habitat, your immediate surroundings have on your physical and mental health. North American culture that is obsessed with productivity, efficiency and success has no time to wake up and smell the coffee. It chugs it down hurriedly on the move. Dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, is an Italian concept whose health benefits are entirely missed on a culture that is interested only in fast results. Marie Forleo’s guilty confession to Dr Hyman illustrates this perfectly. She describes an outing with her husband Josh “after a pretty intense week at work” when all she craved was pizza. Dr Hyman’s reaction is “oh no,” knowing that this story will not end well. Marie Forleo confirms this. The “amazing Neapolitan pizzeria” a few blocks away from her New York residence didn’t have a gluten free option and “by the end of the evening I had the worst headache and couldn’t breathe,” she says. Dr Hyman nods agreeably. What Marie Forleo never mentions in her story is the taste of that sinful pizza, and more importantly: the moment of connection she had shared with her spouse. These types of breaks from the mundane and the tiresome routine, moments filled with ‘nothing’ (productive, that is) are also wonderful opportunities of connection: between you and another human being, between you and nature, or just a deeper connection to yourself. A gluten packed pizza therefore can be the most nourishing medicine; a moment of meditation with your eyes wide open and your senses flooded with goodness (And just to be clear, what I mean here is strictly Italian pizza with a thin crust and the freshest of ingredients, and not the junk food version of it that is swimming in oil, fat, and ‘pepperonis’ that are an American invention by the way).
‘Pizza nights’ are what bring my ex-husband and I together almost every Friday night, five years after our separation. While he works the dough and I chop the vegetables and grate the cheese, our girls pack their bags as they transition to the other parents’ home. This destabilizing weekly move must really suck for my daughters, I think to myself every time, but perhaps is made a little easier with pizza, a movie, and us coming together as a family for a couple of hours.
To “break bread” means to share a meal together. It can also mean, symbolically, to make peace. Today it can simply mean taking your eyes off your phone and directing it to the person sitting opposite you, and with the sweetness of doing nothing but ask, “So, how are you doing?” Gluten might be the price to pay for this moment of connection, if you can’t find a gluten-free option on the menu. But here is another interesting health fact: loneliness kills. According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, a physician and the 19th surgeon general of the United States, loneliness is just as harmful as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day (I’ll let you ponder on this for a moment).
My pasta has definitely gluten and some saturated fat, but it tastes divine. My mother and I broke bread long ago, without any specific words. The imperfect past doesn’t linger between us anymore. There is our pasta, two glasses of white wine, and two hard-working women who are grateful to be in Rome, feasting on all the beauty that slowly heals our wounds. We fold together, say nothing and do nothing, except eat.