A few summers ago, I took a dream solo trip to Italy. Like many independent travelers who prefer going it alone, I reveled in the ruins in Rome, museums in Florence, and trattorias of Venice all by myself. In short, I loved exploring on my own agenda. Not once did I miss companionship.
My daily experiences felt indulgent and free, but after a few weeks of blissful wandering, I found myself in a typical dilemma. I was broke. Trying at all costs to avoid an early departure, I stretched my Italian adventure a bit longer.
Through one of those “friend of a friend” encounters, I moved into a small flat near the University of Bologna. I stayed there for several weeks with 5 Italian female college students, sleeping on the floor and adjusting to constant companionship. Introverted by nature, this new arrangement was not how I envisioned the trip.
But during that time, I engaged local Italian culture more than I ever did as a solo observer. My unexpected roommates and I spent countless hours discussing our lives, debunking cultural stereotypes, preparing meals together, and making nightly pilgrimages to a neighborhood gelateria.
Some of my favorite conversations dealt with Italian food. Specifically, they taught me:
1. Cappuccino is never to be drunk after dinner
2. One never ever eats tomatoes and cheese together for breakfast
3. In some Italian foodie circles, garlic and onion are never mixed.
4. Olive oil and red wine are the secrets to everlasting youth.
For an unenlightened cook like me, accustomed to making spaghetti sauce from a powdered spice packet, these talks were truly educational.
Moreover, the best part about discussing food customs and recipes is that they are more than just lessons about sustenance and taste, they represent culture and tradition. While admiring architecture and visiting museums are certainly worthwhile as a solo traveler, I recognized that interpersonal connection takes the pleasure of travel experience to a deeper level.
One of the recipes I learned in Bologna is an authentic Bolognese Sauce. This sauce certainly challenged my previous notions of what meat sauce should be as it contains the most unexpected ingredient: Milk!
I know many pasta lovers out there are partial to their own recipes passed down family generations, but I encourage you all to give this one a try. I promise you won’t be disappointed by the savory creaminess of it.
3 tbs butter
4 tbs chopped onion
2 tbs chopped carrot
2 tbs chopped celery
¾ pound ground beef, or ¼ pound each of beef, veal, and pork
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 can diced tomatoes with juices
Salt to taste
What to do
Melt butter in a heavy pan and sauté onion, carrot, and celery in the butter until brown, about 5 minutes.
Crumble the ground meat and add to the pan with ½ tsp salt.
Cook for about 3 minutes.
Add milk and bring to a simmer until it evaporates and there is only clear fat residue, about 10 minutes.
Add wine and simmer until it evaporates, about 10 minutes
Add tomatoes and juices and bring to simmer.
Reduce heat to very low and simmer slowly until the liquid is gone, about 3 hours.
Even now, I must admit that my travel tendencies lean more towards lone treks around the globe. Still, I think back to Italy and fondly remember my roommates in Bologna and our many conversations about onion and garlic.
There are many reasons to experience life on the road solo, and no better way to come together with others over a table of food you cooked together. For more on about food and culture, check out our Cooking and Recipes collection.
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Mary Richardson is a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia. She currently lives in Okinawa, Japan, where she is a tour guide and travel writer. Read her stories at worldcurioustraveler.wordpress.com/.
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