I like to think travel broadens the mind. For a snapshot in time, you sneak a glimpse of another culture, up close and personal. What people eat, how they live, and how they navigate human issues common to us all.
We weigh these observations in our minds as we contrast them against our own familiar lives, and sometimes feel the pinching discomfort of a traveler far from home.
“Why is there only one person selling train tickets? Holy Jesus, can’t they see how long the line is??”
This can be as stressful as finding yourself at the cash register at a local supermarket, a long line snaking behind you, only to find you were supposed to weigh and price all your produce BEFORE getting in line, or as casual as witnessing how people react to something unexpected in their busy day. Something that interrupts their plans.
I was fortunate to spend nearly three weeks in Italy this year. I’ve been studying Italian for a few years (although you’d never know it by my halting conversation skills), and traveled to the Veneto with a group of fellow students to attend a school in Treviso, near Venice.
Intense grammar and conversation classes kept us busy each weekday morning until 1pm, after which we rushed down the stairs to freedom. Even at 60, there’s nothing quite like the unleashed freedom of having school finished for the day, hours of sunshine beckoning outside.
Our group was a congenial, well-traveled gaggle of women, mostly in our late 50’s to early 70’s, with three men adding the perfect shot of testosterone to round out the group. Thankfully, we all got along well, which is saying a lot since it was very hot, humid, and our rooms were more hostel than hotel with only a few rooms boasting air conditioning.
One Saturday, we hopped the train to Padua to see the Scrovegni Chapel (you must go – it’s worth every second of the scant 15 minutes they allow you in the chapel) and the city’s Basilica di Sant'Antonio.
Alighting from the train, 12 of us loped across the street to catch a tram. One of my favorite traveling companions on that trip, who was with us that day, was “M”.
At 88 years of age, and yes you read that correctly, you would never think of her as ‘elderly’. She’s 5 feet tall, 100 pounds of dynamo, and completely engaged in all that life offers. She speeds along with her wiry, slightly hunched body pitched forward, as if in excited anticipation of what awaits. She was game for anything anyone suggested, and had the energy to be in the lead many days, with all of us rushing to keep up and make sure she didn’t trip in her enthusiasm to cross a chaotic cobbled street, with trams, cars, and people all vying for the right-of-way.
So here we were in Padua, on a careening tram crammed with Saturday shoppers, praying we were headed in the right direction. Fortunately, someone freed up their seat for M for the three or four stops we had to travel to the Basilica, and she promptly struck up a conversation with a well-dressed older woman in pearls sitting next to her.
To this day, I don’t know if this woman had always planned to get off at our stop or not, but she descended from the tram with us onto a bustling sidewalk, people streaming around us as we huddled together, warbling at her to point us in the right direction.
Her response was perfect in its simplicity. Without saying a word, she held out her arm to M, and leaned in towards her protectively. M hesitated for a moment, perhaps not wanting to presume, and the woman gently took her arm. She waded through the crowd of people around us, M in tow, and the rest of us toddled behind like baby ducklings striving to keep up.
I still remember how they leaned a bit in towards each other, as they walked. It seemed an acknowledgement made between two women who had both weathered much in life, and for having both endured and thrived through it all.
What struck me most was how effortlessly the woman in pearls allowed us to interrupt the pattern of her Saturday. She was on her way home, laden with a bag full of fresh produce, but made us feel like she was lucky for running into us.
Instead of simply pointing out to us on our map the series of turns we needed to make, she personally shepherded us there in a royal procession, and joined us for coffee at a nearby café, as if she had nothing better to do than to listen to our halting attempts at Italian. As an unintentional emissary of Italy, her actions spoke louder than any tour guide in a crowded cathedral expounding on its precious art could, and gave us a peek at a graciousness we don’t always exhibit at home in the US.
Maybe this is the secret of aging well. Part of me hopes there’s more to it than that, because honestly I’m not good at this. I’m more the focused, driven type of girl, who dislikes interruptions (just ask my husband), and who adds things to my lists at the end of the day just so I can cross them off and feel productive.
And I need gobs of alone time, more than the average person.
But I keep remembering sitting down next to M at dining tables all over the Veneto, when she’d turned to me and say in a confidential voice, “I’m so glad you’re sitting next to me”, and how connected that made me feel.
She may well have said that to others – maybe all the others – and it’s made me think that perhaps her secret is wrapped up in that simple sentence. Maybe it’s crucially important, even vital, to have a deep, true appreciation for both the people and experiences that cross our paths, and to always greet both as treasured friends.
So my holiday message is this – as we cram even more life into our personal whirlwinds over the next few weeks, rushing from one thing to next, take some time to be in the moment. Find a way to relax and sit with someone if only to share a moment of your time and appreciation, to make them feel that you’re so happy they’re sitting next to you. And see if you can continue that practice into the New Year. Speaking for myself, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it will be a challenge. But one I’d like to take on.
Stuffed Acorn Squash with Charred Poblano Pepper - Cornbread Stuffing
- 1 poblano pepper
- 1 red pepper
- 2 acorn squash
- 1 tablespoon red pepper jam or other pepper jam
- 2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil divided
- 1/2 yellow onion diced (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 apple cored and diced (I used Braeburn)
- 1 teaspoon crumbled dried sage
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt or 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 cup white wine Pinot Grigio works well
- 6 cups lightly crumbled corn bread, use sage instead of the thyme in the linked recipe
- Spiced Butter ingredients below
- 1/3 cup coarsely chopped parsley
- 2 - 3 tablespoons pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds)
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/8 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/8 tsp cayenne
- 1/8 tsp kosher salt or just a pinch of sea salt
- Char the peppers under the broiler. Stock in a sealed container for 15 minutes, peel, stem, seed, and coarsely chop.
- Lower oven temperature to 400˚F. Chop off the tops of the squash and shave a sliver off the bottoms if needed to allow them to stand upright on their own. Scoop out the seeds and pulp, and reserve for other uses or discard.
- Mix 1 Tbsp olive oil with the jam, and baste the rims and bowl of the squash. Set in a baking pan, and roast until tender - about 45-55 minutes, depending on their size.
- Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet and add the diced onion, apple, sage and salt. Sauté until the onion and apple pieces soften, about 10 minutes.
- Add the wine and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add the crumbled cornbread, Spiced Butter (recipe below), and parsley. Toss to coat, cook for 5 minutes on the stove, and pile into a buttered 8"X8" baking dish. Bake at 350˚F for 15 - 20 minutes. It's fine to share the oven with the squash as long as the squash is softening.
- Scoop the stuffing into the bowls of the squash and finish with a flourish of pepitas.
- Mash all of the ingredients for the Spiced Butter together in a small bowl.