I remember riding the train from the Fiumicino airport into Rome. Through my jet lagged haze I somehow noticed the gardens – everyone had one. There were tomatoes and herbs growing in pots on balconies, under the laundry lines. Rough, ramshackle fences nestled nearly up to the tracks protected little green plots of food, little oases among the dirty, semi-urban landscape.
The next several hours were filled with confusion, frustration, and utter exhaustion.
From the airport train platform I’d made it into the main station at Termini – a cruelly long walk with luggage and little sleep – and onto the metro train toward my room for the night. I thought the metro would get me just a short walk away from my hostel. I was wrong. Not yet realizing how wrong I picked a direction and started walking, only to be stopped by a little Italian nonna just before the end of the block. I have no idea what she said to me, but I understood exactly what she meant: This neighborhood is not for lone tourist girls. Whatever you’re looking for, it’s not this direction. Please, turn around. I showed her my map, pointed to the address and put on my best ‘where the hell am I’ face. She pointed to the bus station and said something that made me think I was nowhere close to my destination.
Turns out I was several kilometers away. As I desperately poured over the routes trying to figure out which bus might get me close, I became so exasperated that I seriously considered backtracking to the airport and buying a ticket home. I was on the verge of tears when I saw my salvation: a yellow cab. Doesn’t matter what language you’re lost in, hailing a cab and pointing to an address on a sheet of paper gets you found.
I am so thankful I didn’t give in to my fear and frustration, because from there things got decidedly easier. I slept for many, many hours, and the next day managed to get back to the meeting point for students participating in the intensive summer course that had brought me there. The next two weeks were heaven. I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had during that trip. The class kept it’s promise of being intensive, but outside of lectures and study groups, we spent much of that two weeks talking and laughing and bonding over the most incredible food, and copious amounts of wine.
I went to Italy to take “Food Aid and Food Security in Humanitarian Settings” as part of my Master’s in International Development curriculum, so the focus on food during my stay there was not surprising. What was surprising is how much my thinking changed in that short stay. The importance of food, the craftsmanship, the pride and tradition – it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I started to realize there was a third way, a middle path of eating that was fair and just, appreciative, and complete.
By that point, for almost half my life I’d abstained from eating meat mostly because of the cruelty and destructiveness of factory farming and industrial meat production. It had never occurred to me that animals raised for meat could be kept in any other way. And here, all of a sudden, I was presented with this idea that people could participate in their food systems at a very personal level. The consequence of this participation is that every carefully crafted morsel is appreciated – production becomes a point of pride, not a profit margin, and the land and animals involved become indispensable partners, treated with respect and taken with humility. It was revolutionary.
The barely visible trail I’d just discovered would slowly widen to my ‘middle path’ of eating small amounts of humanely raised, grass fed meat bought at a butcher counter supplied by a single farm in Marin County. More than a year after that first trip to Italy, I met the man that would take my naive notion that I was participating by consciously shopping and rip it to shreds. I’ve never been more grateful to be shown the error of my ways.