Qualche volta, la vita è bella.
I stayed with Dario in the port of Brindisi. He had lived in Brindisi almost all his life, and half of his family lived here too. Maxime was a young fellow from Normandy who was biking down the Adriatic coast. He had a bushy beard and the native French skill of listening when a woman speaks. It wasn’t about me — it’s just how they live life.
Dario took Maxime and me out to the kind of restaurant that only exists in movies. We walked through the medieval town, white stone surfaces glowing golden and ochre in the evening lamplight. We arrived at the harbor where everyone was enjoying their evening passeggiata, the suffocating heat of the day finally subsiding. Garlands of fairy lights lit the stone walkway edging the beach and tan people strolled under palm trees.
People move better in Southern Italy.
Our restaurant was enchanting, a grove of red-clothed tables under umbrellas, facing the quai.
We ate the kind of dinner that only exists in movies. Usually movies called Eat, Pray, Love. Where the kind local connoisseur with the heart of gold and the palate of a Michelin chef chooses for the table a perfect collection of dishes, almost none of them actually on the menu, after a long heartfelt discussion with the waiter, an old friend, and the owner and chef are old friends of his too, and this is his place. The kind of dinner that would make San Francisco food snobs turn green, with all of their favourite buzzwords in one sentence.
We had Pellegrino. We had a fizzy local white wine that tasted like flowers and had a surprising finish of sweet berries. We had green olives, round crackery bread rings common in Southern Italy, and homemade bread.
We had fresh green caponata, full of basil and garlic and olive oil, jammed with vegetables.
We had eggplant parmigiana with arugula.
We had fried octopus croquettes with a balsamic glaze.
We had seared medallions of mozzarella with cherry tomatoes.
And then the pièce de resitance, we had a local dorade the owner had caught that day, over fresh egg linguini, with cherry tomatoes and olive oil and fried parsley. It was perfect, all the ingredients shone. The perfect summer evening dinner, the perfect balance of bountiful lightness.
I tackled my food with shameless unladylikeness. I dragged homemade bread across my plate and caught the remaining olive oil and aromatic juices. I haven’t had such a good dinner in…well, maybe ever!
Then there was tartufo, ordered, like everything, after a conversation with the waiter, because of course it wasn’t on the menu. A gelato bombe, chocolate on the bottom and vanilla on top, with chocolate sauce hiding inside, crusted with crispy. A shot of espresso poured over it. Genius. I have no idea why we don’t do this all the time. (The espresso kept me up until 5h. But it was worth it.)
Then a cut-glass carafe of the waiter’s own homemade limoncello, a surprise gift from him, that he made himself with fruit from his family’s lemon tree. It was tart and sweet and packed a fiery kick.
Gentle Reader, I ate that dinner for you too.
And the boats gently drifting by in the harbor, and the lights twinkling on the dark water, and the soft breezes bringing relief after a long hot day, and the locals strolling in their slow Italian way, singing conversations to each other.
And Dario paid for the whole thing. He disappeared inside at one moment, and then when we finished the dinner he just led us out to the walkway, us both brandishing our wallets, Maxime protesting, “c’est pas bien!” And Dario saying, somehow, yes, the dinner was paid for, but, did we see him paying for it, no, we did not…so I thanked the Magical Dinner Fairy who paid for that incredible dinner.
As I lay in the heat in the wee hours of the morning, sweat dripping down my joints, waiting for my mind to stop racing, regretting-but-not-regretting the espresso, wondering how long I would have jet lag, and wishing I were less of a precious high maintenance hothouse flower when it came to sleeping conditions, I marveled at the pay-it-forward unsolicited kindness and generosity that mankind can share with his fellow man. This man had taken in total strangers who could only offer him time and our stories, and had housed us, fed us beautifully, and treated us with kindness, respect, and compassion. He had been generous with his attention and his heart.
In the morning he carefully tried to feed the American corn flakes, the way you would feed a budgie birdseed. This American stuck with yogurt and fruit. We went to the train station together and he carried my heavy bag.
We waited for the train and I asked him why he spoke perfect English. His proficiency suggested someone who used it every day at work. But no. He said when he was little he had been in an English language school for a few years. Then when he was in his 20s he took more English classes. Then it was now, and he took some more night classes because he wanted to speak the language, and he “exploited” his Couchsurfing guests for their English language practice opportunities.
When his office colleagues wondered where he was going after work that he couldn’t join them for drinks, and he told them he was going to English classes, he said they all backed away slowly and looked at him as if he were “some kind of strange animal.” Total mystification at this inexplicable behavior! And then, after a long pause, he saw a light go on in a few of their eyes…the slow electric dawn of comprehension, and then they started nodding sagely. “Oooooohhh, we get it,” they said. “You want to be able to talk to the girls who come from Up North!” (The United Kingdom and the Slavic countries.)
He laughed. I know a fellow nerd when I see one. I knew that for him, the thrill was the same as it is for me. Having sex in a foreign language is always more exciting, but it’s not really about that. It’s a more general desire to communicate with other cultures, in all their glory.
He is also learning Russian.
I wish Dario all the best. He is not so young, he is not so handsome, and he is not so Alpha, but he is better than all that: he has a heart of gold. He is kind. He is solid and respectable, he is rooted, he is curious about humans and the world around him, he is dependable and mannerly. He’s a mensch. And some woman out there had better be worthy of that mensch, some day.