e.a.t.

No wonder Italians have a reputation for being so passionate (and are rumoured as perhaps the world’s best lovers) they eat A LOT of aphrodisiacs. A lot.

That was one key piece of information that stood out to me on the Roman food tour.

When tomatoes were first introduced in to Italy in the 15th century they were initially banned by the Pope who believed their red colour indicated aphrodisiac properties.

Luckily he didn’t know the potent ways of truffles, spicy salami, aged balsamic, artichokes, basil or figs (to list just a few)

The food tour was quite possibly the most fantastic gourmand experience of my life.

Homemade pistachio coated cannoli at a Sicily bakery. Pizza by the New York Times acclaimed Italian Michelangelo of Pizza. Never ending offerings of wines, prosciuttos, salamis, cheeses, pastas, Caprese and gelato – all from various reputable stops along the way. Like a pub crawl, but I can relive all the key moments intimately.

My initial attempt at healthy eating was swiftly banished a few days after arriving in Italy. I was going all Eat, Pray, Love on it. In this case specifically EAT.

Time was limited, and so indulgences needed to be increased. Drastically. Gelato everyday. Pasta at least once a day. Sampling of little treaties at all the bakeries along the way. What budget?

Luckily the Italians seemed willing to help out.

People dined alone, but seemed less autonomous. I often chatted with the elderly man at the table next to me.

“Oh you haven’t tried this? But you must! Here have some of mine”

Or “Come no?” The waitor asked when I declined dessert after a huge plate of cannelloni. “How no?” (I love this phrase!) He brought me a free scoop of Limone gelato anyway.

Squares filled in the evenings with locals gathering for their aperitivo – a drink with free tapas to entice everyone to come together and unwind at the end of the day.

Us shoe string travellers took the aperitivo a little too seriously. Free food? That was surely an invitation for a dinner feast of epic bite sized proportions.

And so maybe not surprisingly the highlight of Italy was most definitely the food. I think what makes it so so so good is the fresh, tasty, rich ingredients they use. As well as the flavour pairing. No matter how much I savoured each morsel I still crave it.

But then there was Belgium with chocolate, beer, waffle and French fries heaven.

And then I arrived in Bulgaria and a free food tour literally fell into my lap. I was in my very happy place sampling the Greek and Turkish influenced Balkan cuisine.

My passionate ramblings led some Danish girls to quickly dub me the Foodie and Vino. I was quite happy with this title I thought as I sipped on my Bulgarian rose liquor.

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Ciao Bella

Italy is a curious place, let me paint a few images.

Two immaculately dressed Italian ladies on the ferry to the beautiful island Pocida casually toss their finished cigarettes into the ocean.

On the overflowing beaches old women with deeply tanned crocodile skin, show no signs of giving up sun basking.

A couple fight in Italian, flaying arms and gestural hands saying it all.

Another couple make out passionately on the same beach, he’s taken off her top and they writhe about. Standard behaviour for a public place?

Italian men stalk about in white speedos, populating Tinder with photos so posed it’s enough to put anyone off the app indefinitely.

Italian police officers pontificate about in uniforms designed by a clothes stylist. It’s all about the look.

There are midnight queues around the block for what was the best gelato of my life.

Everywhere you turn is something new to bedazzle. Grit amongst the glam, and passion in even the mundane.

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Augustine

I cannot fathom why even the third time around I love Italy so much. Partially I think it’s because it reminds me of my Grandfather, Augustine Koprda.

I’ve travelled extensively over Western and Eastern Europe, including the teeny tiny Slovakian village he grew up in – but strangely the people that remind me of him most are the Italians.

He was the European cliché – tall, dark, charming and too handsome for his own good. Passionate, loud, fiery but with a huge heart. Always a twinkle in his eye, and a spark of mischievousness that three wives perhaps attested to.

His heavy European accent was poetry to my ears. I was always darrrling. Everyone was always darling to him.

Maybe his Europeaness was exaggerated over time, in a fear of losing his culture.

Maybe it was the more than 50 years spent in the Italian communities of Australia, that he seemed to merge so effortlessly into.

Whenever I visited we’d be at the Italian or the Greek club, eating Mediterranean cuisine and I’d be getting lessons on life a la Europe.

“What are these shoes your Mother sends you in? No we must get you proper shoes, Italian leather.”

I know there was never anyone I looked up to or admired more. Maybe I saw a little of myself in him.

I remember as a kid being obsessed with this one book my mum had brought home from Slovakia, searching through the photographs for people that looked like me.

I never felt like I looked like the other kids at my virtually all Caucasian primary school. I was too olive, my hair too unruly, my eye brows too straight and too thick. My face too square, my features not quite dainty enough.

The first time I went to Europe I remember searching for faces like my own. And I found them. In Sleptany. A tiny village. My grandfather’s brothers, and their sons. They had identical eyebrows and eyes. It was uncanny. They cried when they saw me as the resemblance was so strong. I looked like a Slovakian man!

I remember going to Australia to visit my Grandpa a year later. The last time I saw him before he died. I played him a video I’d edited for his birthday. Little clips of his brothers, sisters and family in Slovakia.

I have no idea what they said, but he wept and wept like a broken man. Remorse for the family he’d left behind. The sacrifice he’d made for a new life. The old one he seemed so keen to leave behind.

Maybe that’s why he embraced the Italian way of life. La dolce vita. It was all the best of Europe, the sweetness without the darkness, deaths and horrors that were permanently etched in his mind from Communism and the Soviet rule.

As the story goes, he was almost shot when he escaped the border, swimming down the Danube river into Austria. His father was tortured by officials trying to get his whereabouts. It’s all hearsay now, as the very person I could’ve asked found it too painful to talk about.

But sitting in a square in Italy I think about him for the first time in years. He comes back so vividly, playing through my mind. Ironically he hated my love of travel, always telling me to stop wasting my money.

But the lure was too strong, the pull to explore this side of my heritage. There’s a darkness and sadness to his past that contrasts so starkly to Italy’s flamboyant lightness that would best be described as bitter sweet. My favourite type of gelato.20150802-093011-34211362.jpg