We met for the first time one Sunday afternoon near the Duomo in Milan and I thought to myself, ‘He’s too short for me.’ We made our way first to an art gallery where we connected over the absurdity of modern art and the nasty things someone had done to an innocent watermelon. Then, at the gallery café, we had strong coffee and swapped dating war stories. By twilight we had moved on to a bar located on the canal, having plowed slowly right through the centre of Milan. We spent the night drinking gin and tonics and laughing too loud, loading up tiny plates with cheese and sausage, roast capsicum, frittata and pasta salad. I had to confess to being Coeliac. He expressed genuine despair and sorrow for my inability to eat real pasta. When we kissed, I worried vaguely about leftover crumbs, but I suddenly didn’t mind that he was so short. He said he had to go, else he’d miss the last train home, but it was a question, rather than a statement. I took him back to my hotel. It wasn’t love at first sight. It was more an adventure. Nevertheless, The Italian followed me to Naples the following weekend. And then to Rome the weekend after that. A holiday romance of lavish proportions. Maybe it was enthusiastic affection, lust perhaps, but surely not love.
He then followed me all the way home to Australia. I panicked, terrified, because a train ride to another Italian city seemed feasibly casual, but a plane ride across the world carried some gravitas, especially since he had a fear of flying. Did I like him that much? Did I have to decide already, whether I’d move to a new country to be with him? Something told me, despite the queasy fear, to say yes, come, and I braced for impact. I needn’t have worried – it was still sweet and light with no outlandish declarations shouted from balconies. We continued our run of laughing and eating together and didn’t linger too much over what it all meant and where it was going.
Instead of sweet pastries for breakfast, I introduced him to toast with ham and avocado. I learned that he liked smoked salmon, but not baked salmon. Apricots and oranges in any iteration were off the agenda, but figs, fresh or dried, were highly desirable. He thought I was delightfully silly for eating a piece of chocolate with my strawberries, and I smiled when his eyes lit up, tasting hummus for the first time. Bread dipped in oil then dukkha was a revelation. Kangaroo was ok, the lamb was better. He didn’t cook at all and I loved to cook. When I finally got the chance to cook for him, I made (gluten free) spaghetti with cockles – good olive oil, chilli, garlic. Halfway through eating, he put his fork down for a moment and muttered under this breath, ‘It’s ridiculous how you throw a couple of things together and it’s amazing. Instinct. Just like my mother’s cooking.’ I didn’t know whether to blush or cringe.
If it wasn’t quite love it was a growing deep and mutual admiration, especially of food. And sex. Not together. Not usually.
But then we went out for Mexican. Another new adventure for him who didn’t stray too far from Italian or, surprisingly, Japanese. Things were going well; the margaritas were sharp and the nachos crunchy. We nudged knees and talked about which country we would ‘conquer’ next. Then he scooped up some guacamole and popped it in his mouth. Suddenly, his face contorted from delight to disgust. He swallowed it – just – and gasped: ‘There’s something terrible mixed in, something revolting’. I frowned, perplexed. He drained his drink and urged me to identify it, whilst regretting I too had to go through the nasty experience. I tried it and knew right away that he was one of those – a coriander hater. Oh dear. Disappointing. This could be a complication. I could live with his aversion to rockmelon and his odd predilection for savory dishes with fruit, but what about the coriander? I reasoned that, as long as he didn’t try to stop me from eating it, we could still get along. I tried to laugh it off and told him that coriander was one of my favorite herbs. He shook his head at me in despair. I raised my eyebrows at him.
It might yet turn out to be love, but I think right there and then we both had our first reservations.
Lard with honey
Despite the coriander incident, I willingly organized a return visit to Italy. He picked me up from the airport and took me to his home where a banquet awaited me. The Italian, who did not cook (who claimed he did not know how to cook) had not only stocked every gluten free item available from his local supermarket at great expense, but then proceeded to prepare me gluten free spaghetti with cockles to return the favor. While we waited for the water to boil, we nibbled at the prosciutto and bresaola he had artfully arranged on a platter with sliced avocado and gluten free bread. My heart swooned but I tried to write it off as jet lag, rather than love, because chasing each other across the world was getting more complicated and expensive than it was amusing and entertaining.
For the weekend we went to a village near Mont Blanc. At the buffet breakfast, he got excited about a plate full of pale slices of something. It turned out to be lard. Cured like prosciutto, but without the meat. Just. Lard. ‘Try it’, his eyes gleamed with pleasure. ‘With honey’, he added. They didn’t have any gluten free bread, just crackers. Dubiously I popped it in my mouth. Even diminished thus, the lard smeared with chestnut blossom honey was lush. It was rich and salty and sweet all at the same time. I felt the same –smooth and decadent, and thought to myself, ‘I wouldn’t eat lard for just anyone. It must be love.’ And truth be told I despaired. How was this going to end? Had it even really begun?
We decided to go on proper holidays together – not Italy, not Australia, but somewhere foreign for both of us. So we organized two weeks in the UK. In Oxford I persuaded him to eat at a Korean restaurant. The waiter and the manager deliberated, struggling to offer me something gluten free. I made it easy for them and asked them to go away, think of something, then surprise me – surprise us, because Korean is a cuisine you share. The Italian panicked and stayed the manager, ‘Wait! Wait!’ Then he pleaded with me, almost desperate ‘At least let’s pick the protein!’ I agreed but otherwise gave myself over to the Korean chefs.
The Italian was nervous and fidgety, and frankly taken aback by my cavalier attitude towards dinner. I chuckled a little and teased him, ‘You don’t always have to be in control. I thought you liked adventure!’ He laughed politely but our conversation stuttered. He fiddled with the chopsticks, I sipped my wine. He rested first one elbow on the table, then the other. Silence. He rubbed the palms of his hands on his lap, his brow furrowed.
But then the sizzling BBQ squid arrived, followed by the spicy beef, and he smiled deeply and happily, frankly and transparently relieved. The manager hovered around, checking if everything was ok and The Italian nodded enthusiastically and sent his compliments to the chef. Then he turned to me and solemnly thanked me for being brave and having such an optimistic disposition, that I should trust our dinner to strangers like that, something he would never do himself. His tone was a warning though – I was clearly lucky it had turned out well.
An uneasy shiver flickered through us both. I shook it off as holiday fatigue, a tense non-argument between two hungry people over mystery Korean BBQ. Love, or whatever, had its highs and lows, right?
Through Liverpool and via York, we ended our jaunt in Edinburgh. We stayed in apartments so that we could save money by buying our own food, but we always ended up buying Norwegian salmon, French brie and expensive gluten free crackers anyway. One night we stole a handful of mustard sachets from a pub, and I cooked lemon mustard chicken with microwaved potatoes. We pottered around our tiny student apartment kitchen, being creative with utensils and equipment that never quite met our needs and giggled childishly, proudly, at our ingenuity. In those moments I was filled with a quiet longing for an infinite future of cooking and eating together, laughing and making love alternatively.
But then he would insist on packing sandwiches with the leftovers. I didn’t object to the thriftiness, but I did object to my salmon and brie being out of the fridge for so long. If we’d been out for hours before stopping for lunch, I refused point blank to eat them and we sat in silence as he munched away alone. He hated eating alone. The Italian thought I was being silly, I thought he was being reckless, playing Russian roulette. Ordering a surprise meal was one thing, exposing yourself to salmonella was quite another.
In turn, he was deeply disappointed in me when I bought a tiny block of organic pistachio chocolate for five pounds. ‘That’s crazy’, he exclaimed, ‘You’re not seriously going to do it’. I had been reading the ingredients and contemplating how much I wanted it. His outrage made my decision easy: ‘Of course I’m going to buy it. I’ll even let you have some’, and he shook his head and muttered about how it was a terrible waste of money. Outside the store, I unwrapped it, broke off a piece and popped it in my mouth. I pretended to be in food ecstasy, with exaggerated moans and eye rolling, but it was, in fact, a little oily, and firmly resisted melting in your mouth. I offered him a piece to taunt him, hoping he wouldn’t actually take it. Instead, he grudgingly took a small square. After chewing for a moment, he raised his eyebrows at me and looked at me intensely. We both knew it was rubbish and I was angry about it. He didn’t say much, just: ‘Don’t waste it on me’.
Grilled salmon and haggis
On the last day of our holiday we were drained and overwrought. It rained pitilessly, but in a clear moment we climbed to Arthur’s Seat high above Edinburgh. We sat on the damp grass with our backs against the rocks, quiet and contemplative. It was too cold for food poisoning, so I ate the ham, cheese and hummus sandwiches we had prepared that morning. The Italian smiled wearily, ‘I’m going to miss hummus. It’s impossible to find in Milan’. I told him he could make it himself, and he laughed, knowing he never would. ‘You’ll have to come and show me how’, he told me, knowing I never would. Something had floundered during our holiday. I couldn’t determine whether I felt too much or didn’t feel enough. Was it love or wasn’t it? I thought it would be easier to tell. Whatever it was, the idea of either of us moving countries to figure it out once and for all was too difficult and overwhelming for us to contemplate. Especially because, along with his fear of flying, The Italian also had a fear of commitment. By now there was a distinct lack of future tense in our conversations.
We went to a pub for our last dinner. Both of us were subdued, listless. When our meals came, I looked at our plates – grilled salmon for me, haggis for him. We’d ordered two meals we wouldn’t, couldn’t, share. I sniffed and cried quietly into my plate, knowing it was our last night together, likely ever. He sighed and rubbed his eyes. We ate in silence and I ordered another wine. ‘It was never going to work out long term, was it’, he said dolefully. I only partially agreed with his sad certainty.
We clutched hands as we walked the long route back to our apartment, gently bumping against each other. I didn’t know how to let go. I wouldn’t be able to drink an Aperol Spritz or a lemon granita, or eat a chocolate gelato or a bocconcini and tomato salad without thinking of him. I smiled at the memory of our impromptu picnic near the Colosseum, at the night we ate suckling pig and stuffed zucchini flowers. I smirked thinking of the time we ordered a gluten free pizza and he was outraged for me, that it was a frozen supermarket brand, and not homemade. I remembered his proud Northern Italian face when I declared the creamy polenta with venison one of the best meals I’d ever eaten. But in the dark night, I shook my head, squeezed his hand harder, and reminded myself that The Italian didn’t like coriander – he was right, it would never have worked out.
Tina Morganella is a freelance writer and copy editor with an MPhil in creative writing. Tina is most interested in short fiction, memoir and travel literature and has most recently been published in Rush (US), STORGY Magazine (UK), and Tulpa Magazine (Australia). She also has nonfiction articles published in the Australian press (The Big Issue, The Australian, The Adelaide Advertiser).