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The Accidental Local: Finding Authenticity in Italy

ITALY | Monday, 2 May 2011 | Views [5621]

Photo courtesy of Stationary Hobo, Flickr.com

Travelers who seem to have a unique gift to attract interesting experiences always seem to say that meeting people wherever they go is one of the greatest joys of traveling. Name any destination they've visited and they can invariably regale you with stories of the fascinating encounters they had with locals or other travelers. It's as if they wear signs that say, "Say hi, I'm worth talking to."

I've long been envious of these travelers and their stories.

Over a decade of traveling in Italy, I've met some truly wonderful people, and in almost every case I've wished one of my more talented writer friends was with me to adequately capture the moment. I'm quite good at meeting people when I travel, whether I'm traveling by myself or with others, but I'm not very good at turning those experiences into fabulous stories.

That said, some of my favorite memories from my trips in Italy are the unexpected moments when I do meet people - even if I never get their names.

Hauling two heavy bags from the Metro station to my Milan hotel (too many blocks away) on a trip many years ago, I passed by a supermarket where a woman had just exited with her bags still in a shopping basket. Rather than leaving the basket at the market, she began wheeling it down the street to get her groceries back home again. Seeing me struggle, and noticing we were both going the same way, she motioned for me to place one of the bags on top of the cart - which she pushed behind me until we got to my hotel. We didn't speak much, and I didn't give any thought to the fact that she was making off with the supermarket's cart, but I will never forget her kindness and cleverness.

On another trip, the husband and I were walking back to our Milan apartment after enjoying an afternoon at an art museum and relaxing in a sidewalk cafe when I stopped to take photographs of the Easter display in a pastry shop near the apartment. When the owner came out of the shop, I thought she was going to be upset that I was taking pictures - instead, she was just a bubbly personality who wanted to chat. She complimented us on our Italian (for which my husband gave her a kiss on each cheek) and invited us into the shop for samples. Naturally, we walked out with a tray of goodies - and we returned to the shop a few more times during our stay.

Photo courtesy of alessandraelle, Flickr.com

During one stay in Venice, I was treated so sweetly by the staff in one particular restaurant (it was the slower season, so they had the time) that I went back a second time. My first meal had been made memorable by a waiter who wanted to practice his English and a chef who wanted to make sure I tried his specialties. After I ordered, little plates kept appearing on my table unannounced, each with two or three bites' worth of dishes the chef was preparing for others. When I arrived the next night for dinner, the waiter and chef greeted me by name - and a few minutes after I was seated, the waiter brought two local regulars to sit with me at my table. He leaned in and said, "They don't speak English, so we can talk about them through dinner." I talked with my tablemates for two hours - about music, food, and traveling.

I cherish these memories, and there are more in the archives. But what if you're more introverted by nature? What if you're not inclined to chat up strangers at the pastry shop? What if you don't speak Italian? Does that mean you can't have a "meet the locals" experience?

No, it doesn't. Thankfully, there's an organization that helps facilitate such meetings, and it does so around food (which makes it even better, in my book).

The Home Food organization's primary goals are preserving local food traditions and promoting the slow food movement, but the doors it can open up for travelers go well beyond food activism. Just by paying a small fee for whatever month you'll be traveling in Italy, you'll be able to sign up for any of the dinners held during your trip - and there are dinners all over the country year-round. If you're planning to add a Home Food dinner to your trip at the last minute, you may find there isn't one that coincides with your itinerary - but if you're planning ahead you shouldn't have too much trouble working an itinerary around a Home Food event.

Most Home Food hosts speak English pretty well, and they've passed thorough testing to make sure they're serving local and seasonal dishes. You may be the only people attending a Home Food dinner, but more likely you'll be joined by other travelers or Italians. It's an excellent way to not only sample some home-cooked Italian specialties but also meet some Italians in their homes - an opportunity most travelers never get.

As mentioned, there's a small monthly fee you need to pay to Home Food, and then you'll pay for each dinner you go to - the cost varies, but it's usually Ä30-50 per person (including all courses and beverages). The locations vary as well - it could be an apartment where the table only seats six, or it could be a huge table in a palazzo.

No matter what the menu, setting, or company, however, it's likely to be one of those "meet the locals" experiences you'll regale your friends with at the next cocktail party you attend.

Photo courtesy of gajman, Flickr.com

Related Articles:

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Italy

Lust for Life - Italian Passion

About the Author

Jessica Spiegel is a Portland-based travel writer for BootsnAll Travel, for whom she writes the WhyGo Italy travel guide. She's always learning something new in Italy, which is only one of the many reasons she loves the country. The great coffee and wine help, too.

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Tags: cuisine, experiences, food, italian food, italy, locals, making a local connection, milan, travel, venice

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