By Paul V. DeMarco
I haven’t traveled widely, but the two times I have travelled internationally as an adult, I have been aware of what a privilege it is. Approximately 40% of Americans have never left the country, and 10% have never been outside their home state.
Looking back at America from across an ocean or a border grants an important, perhaps even essential, perspective. Sometimes the American way gains standing from a faraway vantage. In February 2020, just before COVID, I spent two weeks working in a hospital in Tanzania with a half-dozen students from USC School of Medicine. The hospital, one of the largest in Tanzania, was decades behind those in the U.S. The wards were open (approximately thirty to a room), and the ICU was miniscule and outdated. The radiology department had installed its first CT scanner just a couple years before. Of the deaths that occurred during our time there, several could have been prevented in the U.S. Returning to McLeod Hospital, the local Florence facility where I do part of my practice, I was grateful for the technology and expertise that I had heretofore taken for granted.
My most recent trip, in November 2022, was to Sicily, the land of my ancestors. Returning home was a more ambivalent experience. Our small, expertly-led tour group spent 10 days travelling the length of the island and sampling its bounty. We met a family of fishers and ate tuna they had caught in their restaurant, we met a family of olive famers and watched as one poured freshly pressed oil into small bottles for us to take home, and we met a family that made sausage, pasta and cheese. We saw the patriarch make ricotta in the morning and then ate it for lunch. When I returned, my first meal in the U.S. was at Buc-ees. It was culinary whiplash.
Please don’t misunderstand. There is fast food in Sicily. I bet my brother, who travelled with me, that we would not see a McDonald’s in Sicily, and lost. There are families in America who produce food with the same sense of tradition and passion as those I saw in Italy. We have a farmers’ market in Marion where a woman, whose ancestors have been here since the town was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, sells glorious cookies and pound cakes from recipes honed through the generations. And it is of course true that many people in both countries would eat better if they could afford it.
That said, the food cultures of the two countries are different. It shows in our waistlines. Italy’s adult obesity rate is about 12%. America’s has topped 40%. Speed and work are valued in different ways by the two nations. Eating as part of multitasking is deeply ingrained here. We take out. We eat food in our cars or at our desks. Family members in the same house don’t always eat together.
In Sicily, food is more often an event. Some businesses still close in the middle of the day so that pranzo (lunch) can be savored and followed by a nap. Fresh ingredients are more available and sought after. In Sicily we shopped in two sprawling outdoor markets, one in Palermo and the second in Catania. Both brimmed with riotous displays of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish. In the Ballaro market in Palermo, I watched in awe as a woman at least in her 60s deftly and powerfully squeezed pomegranates with a manual press. With effortless squeeze after squeeze, rivers of juice flowed into the cups of her delighted customers (of which I was one). The juice of the grape is also coveted in Italy. We met a vintner whose vineyard is on the slopes of Mt. Etna. He described how just a few dozen kilometers of distance or altitude between vineyards can produce markedly different wines.
The culinary spirit I’m trying to describe was best exhibited as we dined at the restaurant Tritalo Mediterraneo in Palermo. We ate there twice, sitting outside, and laughed as we tried to communicate across the language barrier. On our second visit, we were welcomed like returning family. When I asked for the check, the owner instead brought out a bottle of Punagro (an orange liqueur) with four glasses and poured each of us a complimentary drink. That gift typified Sicilians approach to the table – as a place of refuge and rejuvenation, where time slows, and from which no sane person would hurry away.
It’s easy to believe that America has the best of everything. It is not wrong to think of our country as the shining city on a hill, as Reagan put it. But there are many different ways of living. The American way, sad to say, is not always the best. It was humbling, but necessary, for me to be reminded of that.
A version of this column appeared in the 1/11/23 issue of the Florence Morning News.
“Approximately 40% of Americans have never left the country, and 10% have never been outside their home state.”
And then there’s that even smaller group who may have never even left their local area. Case in point: Last fall, while traveling from North Augusta to Barnwell, I stopped at a hole-in-the-wall seafood place. The owner/cook asked where I was from and when I said, the Upstate near Easley, he paused a second with a puzzled look on his face and then asked, “Is that in South Carolina?”
In any case, for some fine fish, shrimp and even alligator (when available), try
MJ’s Genesis Seafood and More, Hwy 278.
Le jeunes sophistiqués…
Les idiots savants
World would be a safer friendlier and better place if everyone could travel
That is some horrible vocalization… and cringeworthy stage antics.
Ah! Time for a Shostakovich sing-along!
I’ve been to Europe twice, both times on a Viking Cruise. The onboard chefs prepare meals that mirror the culture of the country or region where you are traveling. And you could not be more right about American dining habits being a a “hurry up and eat” experience. Travel to other places in other countries also gives us a different world view, something that is enriching and expansive in understanding world events. One curious sentence caught my attention. How did they catch that tuna in their restaurant?
For all you bloggers, Ted is a friend, neighbor, master gardener who is wonderfully generous with his produce, and retired English professor. But not retired enough to let that inelegant construction slip by! Thanks for pointing that out.
Just caused an amusing imagined scenario of you and your brother waiting for your meal as the Sicilian fisherman dropped in his line and hoped for dinner.