We’re back.

It was a long, long travel day – but not as long as Phoebe and Nancy and the girls.  When we parted at Philadelphia, they still had a six-hour flight to Oregon.  That would have sent me right over the edge…

It was a bit of a rush to the train station in Florence.  We had a 7am train, but our landlord had to check us out.  Our fabulous 4br/2ba view apartment had a €600,00 deposit we needed back.  I don’t blame him for the deposit.  The apartment is beautiful and he wanted it to remain that way.  Fortunately, he understood our predicament and was there right at 6am, and after a quick check, returned our full deposit and called taxis for us to get us to the train.

With a bit of time to spare, we had our last cornetti e crema.  Those wonderfully-light croissant-like pastries filled with pastry cream.  We had dolce for breakfast every day just like the locals.  At only €1 or less, each, they were a deal.  And delicious.  Of course, that’s the price for take-away or standing at the counter.  There is often a service fee for sitting at a table.  Buying these was a bit of a lesson in and of itself.  Folks are standing, talking, eating right at the counter.  one needs to wiggle themselves in to get the attendants attention.  And please don’t spend all day trying to make up your mind.  Others are waiting.

The morning dolce may be the most difficult thing to try and replicate.  I think am going to need to find some real Italian flour – or the closest US flour to it.  It seems like a very delicate cake flour.  I should have tried to pick up a few bags at the local grocery store but didn’t think about it at the time.  There’s probably a rule about carrying it in to the US, anyway…

But the food, the food…

It was truly stellar on every level.  From simple tomatoes to the mozzarella to the various pasta dishes we had – or made – to simple meats and cheeses.  It was spectacular.

There was lots of pizza – thin-crusted, lightly-topped, circles of magic – but, surprisingly, there were always other things that caught my eye.

There were gelato stores everywhere – all made in the store.  And stores selling pastries or sandwiches – often doubling as bars.  The pane, the various Panini – sandwiches – were unbelievably good.  Fast food was fast – and fresh.  It wasn’t made-in-a-factory-somewhere-and-trucked-in.  Made in advance, yes, but on-premise by the people in front of you.  And those people were not ignorant high school kids.  They were adults with a profession.  It’s amazing that one could get a sandwich quickly from an adult for a mere €3 and the store still seemed to make money.

Even out in the country-side away from the tourist centers, the food was locally prepared – inexpensively.

And then there were the grocery stores.  We lucked out.  We had grocery stores within feet of our apartments in Rome and in Florence.  Both were Conad stores – Consorzio Nazionale Dettaglianti – that are part of a national cooperative of entrepreneurs. Stores are independently owned and operated, distribution centers are cooperatives…

The stores are remarkably different than in the US.  First off, the cashier is just that – a cashier.  The customer places the items on the counter – and then bags their purchases.  If you do not have a bag, you buy a bag.  There are no freebies.  We brought a couple with us and got big smiles from the cashiers we dealt with.  On the other hand, not a lot of cashiers were remotely friendly.  I understand there was a language issue, but, a good percentage really didn’t seem to care whether we bought anything or not.

I did have a fun conversation with one young woman in Florence.  I had seen her a couple of times and asked if she spoke English.  She replied a little, and I told her I did her job in the US.  She was amazed that the cashier would have to empty carts, ring things up – and bag into free bags.  Your groceries, your job.

Another thing is produce.  The customer does NOT touch produce with their bare hands.  There are plastic gloves available for handling produce.  It is also weighed and priced at weighing stations – by the customer.  If you bring something up to the cashier without a tag, it is simply set aside.  They do not call out for a price check or look up the price for you.  They are not going to inconvenience the people in line because you did not follow the rules.

And the produce tasted so good.  OMG!  It tasted good. It wasn’t crap that was genetically modified for mechanical factory-farms.  It was real food that was picked at its peak and had a few days shelf-life.  Buy it fresh and eat it today.

Grocery carts were linked together and it took a €2 coin to get one.  You received your coin back when you returned the cart.  Most people used baskets that could either be carried or used on wheels like a small piece of luggage.  People didn’t do shopping with overflowing carts.  They picked up what they needed for the day.  Kids weren’t running amok around the stores.

It was really refreshing to experience. I just kept marveling at how well the system worked.

My two favorite shopping experiences were at the Mercato Centrale in Florence.  A huge food hall filled to bursting with every sort of meat, poultry, seafood, cheese, produce, jam, jelly, and baked product, imaginable.  It was gastronomic heaven.  And I hardly bought anything.  I was just in awe.  It’s the place I want next door to me.

The other was the Antica Caciara in Rome.

Everywhere I looked, I kept seeing how food is honored and respected in Italy – and in Europe.  Coca Cola is made with sugar – and tastes like the wonderful Coke of my youth.  I didn’t see HFCS in ANY product – and I looked.  The reality is, unlike Americans, Italians simply wouldn’t buy it.  Other American-brand products were the same.  Better ingredients for the European market because people in Europe care about what they eat.

Over the years we have gotten better about what we eat, but this trip firmly implanted my resolve to just eat fresher, healthier all of the time.  I’ll spend the extra time to cook because American Convenience is just going to kill me.

And now…  time to start planning the next trip.  I’m thinking about flying into Milan, seeing an opera at La Scalla, and then heading to Sicily and a palazzo overlooking the sea for a couple of weeks.

Time to start saving, again.