I Spent the Last 15 Months Living in Italy – Here's What I Learned

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A few years ago, I was at a cafe in Rome, talking with my Norwegian friend whom I’d met there for holiday. As she was working, I came across a flyer for a graduate program in Food Studies at an American University. Intrigued, I googled the program and bookmarked the page. Not thinking much of it, I went about my day.

Fast forward three months – I was in the Caribbean with a group of friends. As they were getting ready to go to dinner, I was filling out my application and writing my personal statement. I’d decided to apply.

I was a dietitian after all and the program was in Food Studies. It was a perfect fit. I’d also be granted a student visa, allowing me to stay for an extended period, which didn’t hurt. I’d always felt a pull to Italy and knew I needed to explore a life there.

You see, I’d lived the ‘American Dream’ for a decade. I’d set up life in San Francisco where I attended school and held great jobs in my respected field.

But a few years in I found myself struggling, completely consumed by the 9-5 way of living. My relationship was falling apart, my self-care was terrible. And I was exhausted, overworked and underwhelmed. I knew it wasn’t for me – I knew there had to be a better way.

I’d fallen in love with Italy when I lived in Florence years prior and knew it was a good place to start.

In Italy, food is love. It’s a way to nourish and build community. It’s a way to communicate and preserve tradition.

Fast forward another three months – I’d been accepted. I subleased my apartment and moved. I spent the next 15 months in Europe.

In those months, I took the time to experience food cultures around the world. I traveled for food – all over Italy, London, throughout Morocco, Prague, Paris, Amsterdam, Lucerne and Copenhagen.

Everywhere I went, my belief was reinforced – Italians do it right.

Here are a collection of notes from a dietitian in Rome.

  1. Slow down – as a dietitian I’m inclined to focus on your speed of consumption here. And don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely a good idea to slow down with your meals. But here I’m referring to everything in life. Italians really do know la dolce far niente or the art of doing nothing. They walk like the pope [something I tried to master but failed, miserably]. But in all seriousness, try to slow down where you can. Start with one thing and let it transfer to other areas of life. Allow yourself to be present. Allow yourself to be mindful. I promise you’ll find pleasure in the small things and enjoy life more.

  2. Simplicity is key – there’s a beautiful simplicity to Italian cuisine. A simplicity that’s so pure you can taste the sun and soil in your dish. If you were to ask me my favorite food, Italian tomatoes would definitely top the list. I recently was on a date and confidently said, “Give me 5 ingredients, olive oil and salt and I’ll make you an amazing meal.” I’ll admit … I haven’t actually tested this, but I know it to be true. I know it to be true because of my time in Italy.

  3. Know your food – Elenora, my Italian roommate, received monthly food shipments from her family in Calabria [Southern Italy]. We moved in together in September, and the first shipment came in October. I was so curious. The newspaper wrapped cardboard box was so heavy, Marcello, the baker downstairs, had to help us carry it up. I sat in awe as she unwrapped each item, watching and inquiring throughout. Some things were commercial and could be found at the supermarket across the street [think dried pasta, tomato sauce, canned beans]. But a vast majority of the items were from her family, from their land. Potatoes and citrus from her grandfathers garden, walnuts from their family tree, marmalade her grandmother made [with her grandfather’s fruit], olive oil pressed by a neighbor, fresh bread made by a family friend. Even the canned tuna was caught and packaged by someone she knew! It was absolutely beautiful. Though I know this is simply not possible for most, what we can take away from this is a connection to food – a link to the source. Know where your food comes from when you can.

  4. Eat in seasonCarciofopuntarellepolenta con ragu. All dishes you won’t find year around in Rome. Carciofo [artichokes] are available at the beginning of the year. Puntarelle [a lovely, bitter green served with an anchovy sauce] can be ordered throughout the winter. And heavy downpours call for polenta con ragu, a hearty and warm dish that fills your stomach and heart. PSA: not a seasonal note, but an important one nonetheless, Thursday is gnocchi night at most restaurants in Rome.

  5. Eat with others – food is meant to be shared. Share your lunch with co-workers, dinner with friends, weekend meals with loved ones and watch your relationship with food and mealtime shift.

  6. Plate with intent – every meal doesn’t need to look like it was plated by a Michelin star chef, but it won’t hurt to plate for yourself and others with a little care. It’ll help you use all your senses and slow down a bit while cultivating a positive relationship with food.

  7. Take a step back – often times, we fixate on things like micronutrients, numbers and health benefits and we lose sight of the larger picture. It’s not only about what you eat. It’s about how you eat. Your ability to digest and metabolize food goes beyond the nutritional breakdown of the food itself. Factors in your control, like the rhythm and frequency at which you eat throughout the day, your relaxation level, the quality of your food and the pleasure you find in meals, all play a significant role when it comes to your health. Yes, you can win the battle with folate or fiber, but you may simultaneously lose the pleasure food provides. Take a step back and allow yourself to listen to your body and needs. You can be healthy while allowing yourself to enjoy food.

  8. Enjoy your meals – maybe that means taking a 2 hr lunch. Maybe it’s a 20-minute meal between meetings. Regardless, be present and allow yourself the time and space to have a moment with your meal. Even if it’s as quick and straightforward as taking a deep breath and checking in before you begin. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, your headspace when consuming food plays a significant role in your digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Give yourself a moment to enjoy it.

So there you have it – 8 practical tips to eat and live like an Italian. Implement them and your la dolce far niente is sure to improve. Buon appetito.