Pasta Dreams and Flying Machines: Our Tuscan Adventure


Last year, we had some leftover airline credit on Norwegian Airlines. On the day it was set to expire, in a panic, I asked my 4-year-old son, Holt, where we should go.

“I love pasta!” he said. “But not with red sauce.”

In retrospect, perhaps I should not have organized an entire trip around trying to prove to my 4-year-old that he did, in fact, like pasta al pomodoro; he just didn’t know it yet. Yet how could I ignore that ancient proverb of Italy, chiseled above the gateway to every town: Sucus ruber omnibus dilectus, “All love red sauce.”

Yes, Italy! We would go to Italy. At the time it seemed like such a good idea. Culture! Sun! Vespas! Ciao! It was only after buying the tickets that I remembered the problem with traveling with young children is that when it comes time to travel, you actually have to bring your young children with you.

So, what do you do? Namely, do you ruin your life on their behalf? With kids in tow you cannot have long, lingering 20-course dinners. (You cannot have two-course dinners.) You cannot spend a whole day in an art museum scrutinizing the pathos of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. You cannot while away an afternoon reading Dante’s “Inferno,” downing six bottles of Chianti as Pavarotti belts his way through Tosca.

In order for you to be happy, your children must be happy. If I’ve learned anything about living and traveling with children, it’s to keep things simple. Boil life down to its essence. Path of least resistance.

So, here was our entire agenda for our Italy trip in June: “Eat as much pasta as possible.” Full stop. Anything else that happened would be purely a bonus.

Our rough itinerary was to rent a car at the Rome-Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport and head up to Tuscany, spending three nights in the stunning Val d’Orcia region, where we would bounce around hilltop towns sampling the local pasta specialties. We would then flee north, to Siena and Florence. We would probably not see much art, if any. Our history lessons would be limited. We would eat pasta and then more pasta. We would turn pasta into a daily ritual, a prayer, a philosophical question, a prison sentence. We were either geniuses or fools. (Or both.)

Chiarentana is now run by Iris’s lovely daughter, Donata. They sell several varieties of their own olive oil, including the frantoiano, which can transform a simple piece of bread into a gustative epiphany of earth and arbor and sky.

The place bleeds history. But my son Holt did not care about any of that. He was intent upon setting up a cheap plastic bowling set in that magical cobblestone courtyard. He created an elaborate game with arcane rules that could only be played in this courtyard, under this linden tree. I tried playing with him, but got it all wrong.

“No, that’s the home pin,” he said, weary at such ignorance.

There is something refreshing about watching the very young play in a very old place. We must care about history, but we must not care too much. The wheel of time spins.

We ordered three pastas, including eliche with fresh ricotta and wild fennel. Eliche means propeller in Italian; the pasta is shaped like a spiral, or the path a propeller would make in the water. Holt enjoyed this information. Like many boys his age, Holt is fascinated by systems, shapes, how things work and don’t work; it seemed like his entire third year was composed simply of reciting a taxonomy of construction vehicles.

The pastas came. They were divine. Life shrunk to its simplest ingredients. We do not need much to be happy in this world: something to slurp, something to sip. Everyone sat very quietly eating, even Max, our youngest. We marveled at the path propellers make from our mouths to our stomach. Suddenly Holt held his fork aloft, eliche skewered on its tongs. “This is the best thing in my life!” he exclaimed.

From that very successful first lunch things became a bit wobbly. My children, like most children, do not sit at tables for extended periods of time. Why sit at a table? Tables are boring, flat things that cannot be slapped, climbed upon, taken apart without reprimand. Children wonder: Why do adults always sit at tables for hours and hours, talking and not talking?

My children preferred hanging out with Bertoldo, the depressive, wise donkey of Chiarentana who bleats at the sadness of mortality each morning. Holt loves a good patch of sand from which he can narrate the history of the universe. Max loves a good door threshold. Or a ramp. He will spend half an hour opening and shutting a door or running up and down a ramp. But neither of them will sit at a table for very long. Oh no.

Our Airbnb was in Oltrarno, the hip, Brooklyn-like Florentine neighborhood just south of the River Arno, filled with little eateries and shops selling artisanal rucksacks and handmade puppets.

Our first day we ventured into the sweaty scrum of central Florence and were quickly repelled by a tsunami of tourists. Florence in the high season is a nightmare. You cannot breathe, you cannot move. Our whole family grew quite cranky until we bought some gelato alla stracciatella. It has been proven by science that gelato is the cure for all ills, including gout, gunshot wounds and existential despair.

By all appearances, the straight line, the shortest path, is the quickest route to the bottom. Right?

Nope. Galileo discovered it was the brachistochrone curve, which, despite being longer, delivers the ball first. And as I watched Holt put marble after marble down each path, testing and retesting the hypothesis, I began to irresponsibly apply such principles to our little Italian adventure. The straightest way is not always the best way. Rather, by weathering the natural curves of life, by going down and then up, by lingering at the doorway for half an hour as Max joyfully closes and opens the door again and again, you are actually taking the more efficient path.



Source link Nytimes.com

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