Saturday, January 23, 2016

Gelato and the Way It Used To Be

Back in the United States, my schedule still a little jet-lag-skeewhumper, I awoke this morning at 1:40 a.m. and again at 5:00 a.m. The second awakening was accompanied by an intense craving for ice cream. I blame this craving on recent indulgences of Italian gelato. I actually prefer American ice cream, but there's something about "When in Rome, do as the Romans." Henceforth, it is requisite to indulge in gelato.

A fellow traveler had this advice: When in Italy, one must abide by two rules only. 1. Always walk everywhere. The purpose of this is to not miss a single gelato shop on one's journey. 2. Buy a gelato at every gelato shop unless each hand is already carrying a cup or cone of gelato.

From this admonishment, we see that gelato shops are-a-plenty today in Italy. During my last visit (years ago), I don't remember the two-gelato-shops-on-every-street. But then, a lot has changed.

One of the significant changes is the lack of open exploration of ancient sites. Wandering freely through the Acropolis, up and down the Parthenon steps and across the sacred ground was once allowed.

I asked our guide when it had changed. "The keep-out ropes only went up in the early 1980s." My memory was validated.

I also distinctly remember standing on the forum steps with a professor from Cambridge. He wasn't meant to be our guide, but there was a mess-up in schedules and the forum was guide-short, so somehow he stepped in for the most marvelous tour of my life which included walking on the forum steps. This time they were cordoned off.

Those were the days: the days before a madman took a hammer to Michelangelo's  Pieta; before the discovery that human breath left salt deposits on frescoes, before graffiti reached "art" status. Before ISIS made it its mission to destroy all of antiquity. The sad fact is that war has always threatened art, and architecture, and carried it home to the motherland. It is a different kind of madman today that threatens antiquity.

And so, a favorite long ago memory will always be when a gelato shop was a discovery and not just another gelato shop on every corner: A warm summer night while roaming through the dark streets of Florence, we came upon a bright piazza full of revelry. Most of the crowd stood around a shop, and I was told it was gelato. I'd never heard of gelato and after several days of traveling around Italy this was my first encounter. I probably chose three flavors (because the essence of habit is that we order the same number of gelato flavors), which were scooped into a small cup. Wow! I'd never tasted ice cream like that before. These were the days before Haagen Dazs and ice cream shops that only specialized in ice cream with fillers and artificial additives.

Over the years, more gelato shops opened to meet the demand. It was no longer "That one great gelato shop in Florence; tourists must now wade through a lot of mediocre gelato. Yet, we still comply in the overindulgence that follows us home and wakes us in the night.