Where locals dine, travelers are sure to be happy, too – provided they are not so worldly wise that they outwit themselves.
We’ve all been there. An unfamiliar city, summertime, it’s hot, you’ve been walking all morning and your feet are aching, and your legs are on fire, too. You have a terrible thirst and worst all is the hunger. At the same time, there’s not a good restaurant in sight. You’ve been trying for a good hour to locate the one friends recommended so warmly – but in vain. Incredulous, you gaze at your street plan, now limp with sweat – and suddenly feel hunger pangry. “Hunger pangry” describes the state you fall into when your blood sugar level falls way too low. The symptoms are poor concentration, latent aggressiveness, and frayed nerves.
Another nice and relatively new expression is “life hacks.” It describes the strategies we come up with to deal with everyday problems in an unusual way – clever tricks in other words. I invented one such trick. It solved the problem already mentioned of choosing a restaurant. I was in Italy, Venice in fact, with my wife. Yes, she became hunger pangry. We had been looking for a particular restaurant for some time. With a sigh, my wife sat down on the steps of the Bridge of Sighs and refused to take another step. She even threatened to knock me over the head with a gondola if I didn’t come up with the promised meal very soon. So I was forced to improvise. Luckily, I had already developed my foolproof method of recognizing a good restaurant in any unfamiliar place I happened to be in between Bolzano and Syracuse. I marched into the next street, took a look inside a couple of eateries and had already found the perfect one.
Soon we were sitting in a not particularly cozy bar with neon lighting. “That’s the way it is here,” I said, “restaurants often seem very ordinary on the surface, ugly even, but the food… “I raised my eyes heavenwards and made the kind of gesture Pavarotti affects immediately before an aria reaches its climax. Suspicious, my wife asked how I had selected this place?” I leaned across the table and whispered. “Look around you, what do you see?” My wife looked, then said “old people.” “Precisely,” I replied, triumphant. “The restaurant is full of old people. Old women to be exact. Now, if anyone in Italy knows anything about food, it’s old women. The mothers are the people who preserve the legacy of Italian cuisine. La mamma knows how it’s done. So when I see so many elderly women dining here, I know it’s an infallible sign that this is a place where you can eat as one ought to eat in Italy: cheaply and well on food cooked with honest produce, all fatto in casa and a mano, as the Italians say. Claro?“ I was visibly proud to be sharing my secret and ingenious restaurant selection technique with someone else, but found myself confronted with a furrowed brow. “What?” I asked – “Well, I was just wondering…” – “What?” – “Why are none of your Italian grannies speaking a word of Italian.” I straightened up, put my hands to my ears like NSA eavesdropping headphones and actually picked up a merry palaver from the old ladies that was definitely not Italian. “Sounds Spanish to me,” said my wife, just as the waiter came over with a laminated menu in four languages. “Eengleesh” he asked grimly, and without waiting for an answer reeled off his tip: “I canna really recommenda specialissima spaghetti with musseli.”
The food was abysmal – the pasta overcooked, oversalted, the mussels noisily sandy, the wine barely distinguishable from the balsamic vinegar in either color or flavor. And then the party of Spanish senior citizens noisily departed the restaurant, to which peace was restored, only two people still sitting there, silent: my wife and I. The bill lay on the table between us. My wife picked it up. “Well, it was cheap,” she said and smiled. That’s something at least.