On one of my recent trips to Italy, I was to take a bus from the quaint Tuscan town of Siena to Rome, and then catch a plane back to Moscow.
The bus was scheduled to depart at 2:00 p.m., but at 2:20 there was still no sight of it. When it arrived at about 2:30, the Italian passengers didn't say a word and just proceeded to board. There were only a few tourists who, struggling with the language, tried questioning the driver why he was so late. He just shrugged nonchalantly, smiling like a cat who had just devoured a big tasty fish.
“Pranzo troppo lungo,” whispered to me one of the Italian travelers. Too long a lunch. No big deal, is it?
Pranzo. Lunch. There are just a few words in life that could be more vital for an Italian and any Mediterranean soul, be it a bus driver or a prime minister. Not to miss ever. To savor to the fullest. To prioritize over work and other things no matter what.
Granted, some of this is familiar to me. My mother's family comes from Georgia, the culture where food is also religion. I will never forget those multi-layered cheese pies, the green peppers stuffed with beef, rice, vegetables and herbs and other sophisticated Georgian dishes my grandma cooked when I was little. Back then, we had zero kitchen devices, so she whipped, and chopped and grated and mixed everything by hand. It was bliss smelling the spices' aroma and tasting the dough and just watching her create those delicious things so effortlessly.
Then, as we rolled into the 1990s, the food shortages came, and then the market economy-induced rushed lifestyle that arrived a few years later.
After my grandma died, that hedonistic slow cooking tradition more or less died. Simpler, cheaper, faster attitudes to food similar to the ones in the Anglo-Saxon culture prevailed in many Russian families. So when I first got exposed to the Mediterranean lifestyle, I just couldn't get it. Staying for a good three hours at a dinner table seemed to me a waste of time.
Discussing the differences of the Pecorino cheese from the Tuscan village of Pienza as opposed to the one coming from the neighboring town of San Casciano over half of lunch appeared so superficial and trivial, if not ridiculous. Most Italian men could talk about the properties of the fresh chianina, the traditional Florentine bistecca is made of, more passionately than about women, football and other more expected male topics. “They are just obsessed,” I used to think to myself.
“Food is one of the key pleasures of life, just like making love or appreciating works of art,” an Italian told me once. After a while I came to realize that in the Mediterranean, food is not just a simple pleasure. It’s the road that connects the past with the present and the future. It's a solace from life's calamities. It's the major social glue. It's an art form. It's a celebration of nature in its purest matter. It's being here and now – the world with all its troubles can wait while you enjoy a pizza Margherita fresh from the oven or a grilled sea brim from this night's catch, washing it down with chilled Chardonnay from a nearby winery.
It's also an expression of self-respect, a healthy self-love if you wish. The Mediterraneans live to eat; therefore, they do watch what they eat, how and with whom. When I lived in the States and took my internship at a large Washington D.C.-based news service, I was shocked to discover that most of my colleagues ate their lunch in the elevator on the way from the office cafeteria or, at best, at their desks in front of the computer. The pressure to regard food as fuel was so strong in that corporate culture that I picked up the habit, reluctantly. It contributed to my work productivity, but definitely not to my health and spirits.
It's widely known that Mediterranean people not only live longer, but they are happier. Scientists have discovered the nutrients their diet contains, the olive oil's fatty acids in particular, protect from depression. One recent extensive Spanish study proved that consuming veggies, fruits, whole grains, fish and other Mediterranean components on a regular basis lowers the risk of developing depression by at least 30%.
I am actually writing this column from a Greek resort on the Aegean Sea, where I am covering a major food festival that takes place here every year. (Yes, the Greeks still celebrate food, no matter how severe the economic crisis.) This year's theme is cooking simple, using local and season produce. “You shouldn't throw away anything nature gives you,” one of the chefs told me. This self-taught Michelin-starred cooking genius is one the most well-known chefs in Greece. One of the things he's famous for is his savviness: while preparing fish, his longtime specialty, he uses everything, excluding teeth and nostrils. “The next few years in Greece are going to be very hard, but we'll make it,” he said. “We've got our food.”
Watching this 60-year-old cook, with demiurge's passion and drive, I believed him.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.