Dolce Far Niente

  A street in Pompeii

A street in Pompeii

In his gentle voice, Leonard said Romans prefer to eat gelato off a cone. “We cannot eat from a cup,” he said. “Because then we would need both hands. If we use both hands for gelato, we cannot talk. If you can talk without your hands, you can order gelato in a cup.”

Fair enough.

Leonard was tall and lanky, and broad in the chest and flat in the belly. He had the natural athletic grace of the European. He spoke of food all the time, and he was so relaxed through the day, I couldn’t help but wonder how he got that build and preserved it.

Why is olive oil is a touch bitter when it is Neapolitan? What are the merits of the Tuscan wine, versus those of the wine from the region of Pompeii, and Positano? Leonard wrote down names for the best places for Margherita in Rome and in Positano after he’d explained the history behind the tricolour pizza. To vegetarian listeners, he clarified: “We must have meat here. And fish. Without them, we cannot complete our cuisine.”

For a long time, it has been the Italian restaurant that reliably meets my vegan needs when I’m travelling in the West.

He did speak a little about where we were going. About the cloud of ash that hung over Pompeii, lingering long in the sky before it fell. He told the story in a languorous, drawn-out tone, painting the picture at a leisurely pace, giving the finishing touches as we passed the Vesuvius. His style was conversational, intimate, although he spoke into the microphone with eyes to the highway.

A little about Vesuvius. The story of Spartacus, and Capua where he fought, which was by our route. And the Appalachian Way, along which Spartacus’s men were crucified. The avenue of umbrella pines came up and went past before I could grab a shot.

Done with history, Leonard got back to food. Nobody minded.

“In Rome, we are unlike the Italians in the north. We love a relaxed life. And, as we have learnt from the drama of the Greeks, the future is not in our hands. So let us see. Our trip to Pompeii and Positano today may be good. Who knows? It may not be so good. Let us leave it to destiny.”

With that, he asked us to take a nap if we wished to.

It would rain a little in Pompeii when we reached in the afternoon, and we’d buy China-made umbrellas and raincoats at a kiosk. The rain would stop by the time we entered the amphitheatre, a few minutes from the entrance. Earlier to Pompeii, it would be blazing in Positano at lunch, but the entire population on this planet would be lying in wait for us there, to throttle us full-body from the moment of arrival until the point of exit. But I would get to be happy, finding a vegan feast, listed as Buddha’s Bowl on the menu, at a terrace restaurant called Collina, by a narrow street named Cristoforo Colombo.

How is limoncello made? With the rind of lemon over several weeks. The lemon were growing right there along the street, and olives, and grape. What’s the best pasta to carry home? Grainy pasta, because it assures al dente. One must take time and trouble to match the colours while asking for gelato. Choose three, but it is up to you. What does the black soil of Pompeii do to the olive above it?

“The Italian breakfast is espresso with a croissant.” But I knew that. “And you must never drink a cappuccino after morning.” I’d learnt that one too, but only three years or so ago.

“We are simple people,” Leonard said in his soothing voice with the sun pouring in. “Our approach to life isdolce far niente— the sweet art of doing nothing. Not everybody can achieve it. But if you keep trying you can.”

I wonder about that. I’ve spent a lifetime doing nothing, yet I’ve never known I’ve been practising high Roman-art all these decades. So I’m raising a toast here at home: I won’t drink wine; I can’t take take limoncello; but here’s a glass of water, I’m holding it high for Leonard, and for me, and my mastery of dolce far niente.