I could barely contain my excitement as I ran-walked to the train station to visit my newfound amour.
I felt a little sheepish as I bid my French teacher au revoir, but as I boarded the train and settled in for the 40-minute journey, the guilt was immediately replaced by anticipation.
Velvety rich cappuccinos, steaming plates of garlicky pasta, and cheap high quality leather goods awaited… in Italy!
One of my favorite things about living in the French Riviera is its proximity to the Italian Riviera.
Less than an hour by train from Nice lays the sleepy town of Ventimiglia. There isn’t anything particularly spectacular about the place, in fact when I mention it to French people they turn up their noses asking:
“Ventimiglia? Est-ce que tu pense s’est jolie?” (Do you think its pretty?)
The truth is, it’s a small run of the mill Italian town that shares a boarder with France, and happens to be the end of the line for the local French train. But that’s enough for me.
Southern France is heavily influenced by Italy, in fact, Nice belonged to Italy until 1861, and the cuisine and character of the city reflect that.
Actually being in Italy though, is something else altogether.
Somehow I always seem to be surrounded by Italians on the train ride over, so from the moment I take my seat the mood shifts.
The Italians savor their vowels drawing out each one at the end of a word, while the French sequester theirs away keeping them a secret, revealed only to those who can read or write the language.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like La Belle France. Bien sûr I do! I feel an allegiance to the language I have worked so hard to become not quite competent in. But I can’t help being seduced by Italy.
While I am slowly finding my way in France, It’s not easy to fit in as an American. It takes a lot of effort to earn your place here.
It has taken the past three months for example, move my daily conversation with the woman at the bakery below my apartment from the polite greeting of “bonjour” (good morning) to the slightly more familiar “bonjour, ca va?” (good morning, how are you?)
Italians seem to be a bit quicker to warm up, and more patient with me standing stupefied in front of a dazzling bakery case full of cannoli, stammering in apologetic English that I’d like one.
I felt at home at giant market in the center of town, where the woman selling leather goods joked with me as she wrapped her arms around my waist showing me exactly how I was supposed to wear the latest styles of belts.
And it just so close! I grew up in Hawaii where it was a five-hour flight to the nearest city. And then I lived in California where you can drive for ten hours and still be in the same state.
For me living in the East Coast where you can cross state lines in a few minutes was a novelty. So crossing country lines to do my grocery shopping is a revelation.
Especially when that means perusing aisle after aisle of olive oil, espresso and Barolo wines straight from the source.
The French absolutely know what they are doing in the kitchen, but I’d say the Italians are neck and neck with their neighbors to the west when it comes to food.
I had a little taste of heaven when the Englishman — whom I dragged to Ventimiglia while he was in town for a long weekend — and I stumbled Ristorante Marco Polo, overlooking the Mediterranean. A far cry from most of the “touristic” menus offered all along the sea front, this place oozes an old school Italian charm.
The friendly maître d’ ushered us to a sunny table on the patio, and our waiter, squeezed into a white shirt and black tie, snapped to attention and showed off his many languages as he rattled off the daily specials and aperitifs on offer.
He looked like he may have been born wearing a long white apron with a tray of champagne glasses in his hands.
I selected one of the set menu options, sat back and marveled as one perfectly sized, delicious coarse after another was brought out to our table.
After we polished off the tiramisu and coffee, we strolled out onto the pebbly sand, and at that moment, with the Mediterranean Ocean drenched in golden autumnal sunshine, and the beach empty but for us, Italy sure seemed a lot like paradise to me.