Food, Travel and the Definition of Nowhere While on the Road

It seemed like any other Tuesday afternoon in Calcata, the loony medieval hill town 35 miles north of Rome where I spent a couple years living and researching a book. I was trudging down the hill from Calcata Nuova, the ancient hill town’s modern sibling, my hands weighed down with bags of groceries and six-packs of one-liter water bottles, when I heard something.

“Hey. Davide,” a voice said. It was Capellone, the local fascist, who liked to hang out in his shack-cum-cantina, lodged into the hillside between the two villages. It was here that Capellone–local dialect for “Big Hair”–liked to lure people in to imbibe his putrid homemade wine.

And soon enough, the bearded man himself, hunched over, emerged from the blackness like some kind of cave-dwelling hermit, imploring with a wave of his hand and some incomprehensible grunts to come inside–just for a goccione, a sizeable drop. Within seconds I was sitting on a log inside his musty dark shack, a white plastic cup of disgusting wine in my hand, and listening to Cappelone grunt out stories in incomprehensible Italian.

Suddenly two silhouettes appeared at the door of his cantina and Capellone jumped up to greet them. I followed. The two men wore light-pink button-up shirts and dark sports jackets. I peered up the hill toward Calcata Nuova and saw at least 10 more, all dressed the same way, marching toward us, followed by Zio Avelio (Uncle Avelio), the food shop owner, and Cesare, the sweet but mentally slow village idiot, carrying tin containers of food.

Capellone dispersed his trademark cheap white plastic cups, the aluminum foil was ripped off the tin food containers and suddenly the party was on. The identically dressed men roared with laughter and slapped each other on the back.

I stood behind everyone for a second and watched the scene, wondering: why does this only seem to happen to me when I’m traveling? These impromptu invitations, often by complete strangers, become our most memorable experiences from a trip. Food and/or drink is always the connecting bond. At least for me it is. Am I just not open to it happening in the United States, my home country? Or does this sort of thing just not really happen there as often as it does elsewhere in the world?

“So, what’s going on here?” I finally asked. “Why the party?”

“We love funerals in Calcata Nuova,” one of the guys said, holding a glass of wine in one hand and a paper plate of mixed seafood with the other. “We do funerals all over the area, but when we hear of a job in Calcata, we always call Capellone ahead of time and he’s waiting for us here at the cantina with food and wine.”

“So, the funeral is over and now you’re celebrating a hard day’s work?” I asked.

“No, the funeral is happening right now,” the man said, looking at me like I’d just asked if he could take me on a joy ride in the back of his hearse. Pointing up the hill in the direction of the cemetery in Calcata Nuova, he added: “We don’t have anything to do until it’s finished. Then we have to drive back to Civita Castellana.”

Before I could respond, I noticed that everyone had grown silent, their attention focused on Cesare, his bulging hands like they were sculpted straight out of a Soviet propaganda artist’s workshop, shoveling calamari and unidentifiable fish parts into his mouth with the determination of a competitive eater. Cesare was sweet, but so mentally slow I wondered if it would take hours before his stomach would finally be able to get the message to his brain that it was full. Six and a half feet tall and balding, Cesare spoke in a slow, grinding, and slurred monotone that made understanding him impossible. Moreover, he spoke Calcatese, a clipped dialect that sounds nearly incomprehensible to most other native Italian speakers. I once asked my friend Elena what happened to him and she said he was in a car accident.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” I said. “So he was normal before the accident?”

“No,” she said with a straight face. “He was pretty much the same. He just didn’t limp.”

After about 10 minutes of Cesare chomping down, the front of Capellone’s cantina an arena for his eating prowess, the funeral workers began shouting out jovial jabs at him. “He’s an eating machine,” one of them yelled out. “Hey, Cesare! Why not save some for the rest of us?” another screamed in a light tone, for which Cesare cracked a smile and grunted, keeping his intent stare on the tin container of seafood.

A few minutes later, the men–their bellies full of wine and seafood–gravitated back up the hill to join the funeral they were hired to work at, leaving Capellone and me standing there, just like we had been about 20 minutes earlier. I was left wondering if the last few minutes I just experienced were real or some kind of travel dream. It was like I’d been no where and everywhere at the same time, lodged on a hillside between two obscure villages in the Roman hinterlands, yet right then at that moment there was no other place I would have rather been than drinking bad wine with a bunch of funeral home employees and watching a machine of a man scooping handfuls of seafood into his mouth. Where else, I thought, can a trip to the supermarket be so memorable? Anywhere, it seems, but where we live. Such is the beauty of travel to appreciate the moments that at home we might completely ignore.

I picked up my grocery bags, said goodbye to Capellone, and walked home to Calcata.