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French Fries on Pizza

I find myself completely immersed in Italy and we’ve only been in the country for about 32 hours. Somehow in that time, we’ve managed to end up in a backyard, in the suburbs of a small Italian town, socializing with the locals. It’s 4 AM, and we make our rounds saying goodbye, Italians hug tight, like family.

How did we get here?

We were in Northern Italy, which served as an entrance to the Balkan Peninsula where we planned to spend the next month. With a couple of days to kill before heading off to Slovenia, Italy was a logical spot to post up.

We avoided several catastrophes in getting to our Airbnb for the night. We had two instances where we were razor thin close to needing to sleep somewhere outside, but through perseverance and incredible luck, we accidentally made it to Bassano Del Grappa, population 43k, a town we hadn’t known existed only hours earlier when we were homeless in Venice.

The city is known for Mount Grappa, the birthplace of Grappa, the Italian digestif liquor that’s often enjoyed after dinner. It’s a working-class town that’s tight knight and enjoys a slower pace of life with a nearly nonexistent tourist industry to cater to.

After putting down breakfast, we decide to direct our energy towards a hike. After all, we’re in northern Italy at the foot of the Dolomites and surrounded by mountainous forests so lush you’d think you’re in a rainforest.

It’s humid and hot, and it’s a four-hour escalation straight up the mountain. The humidity and hike have left us drenched with sweat by the time we finish our hike in Valrovina, (a quaint city in the mountains outside Bassano, with a population of 500). We drink some decadent Cappuccino to close out the afternoon.

It’s nearly happy hour and we stumble across a Grappa museum, with to our delight, a free sampling bar. Standing in the room surrounded by retirees our hiking clothes that have now dried but still smell just the same are a departure from the typical clientele they open up the bar to.

We have between 10 to 12 samples between the two of us. The bartender speaks very broken English but has no intention of stopping us, so we decide to stop ourselves.

Just as we turn to the bottle shop out of courtesy, our bartender approaches us…

“My shift’s now done. I’m going to go to Nardini (she points towards the door), a bar by the bridge if you want to come” she delivers in broken English.

Jack and I turn towards each other, shrug, and head out to Nardini.

At the foot of the old bridge that crosses the cities river is a bar that birthed the famous cocktail “Mezzo E Mezzo”, equal parts Nardini Rosso, Nardini Rabarbaro, and soda water. Nardini has been making this recipe unchanged since 1920, and both the bridge and the drink have developed a strong cultural significance to the city; every night of the week, and especially on weekends, the town comes out to drink Mezzo E Mezzo on the bridge. A tradition that’s felt through the presence of the locals on the covered bridge.

Our bartender, Elisa, shares that she’s a 21-year-old student who’s lived in Bassano her whole life.

Despite working in a museum and a restaurant, we were the first Canadians she had ever met. Tourism is often local in Grappa. A year prior there was an American couple that stopped through. For someone that had never traveled on a plane before, it was an absurdity that we came from across the world to land in her small town.

After sharing a couple of rounds of Mezzo, we were now starting to feel our caloric deficit from the day’s hike. Elisa offered to take us to the Pizzeria she worked at the other half of the week. 20-minute ride out into the suburbs of Bassano and we arrive at a restaurant that’s a scene out of a movie. A local pizza joint that’s bustling with Italian grandmothers and fellas alike. Nobody here speaks English apart from Elisa who’s picked up basic conversational skills from watching Friends and How I Met Your Mother. As we’re eating with Elisa, we receive special treatment from the owner, bypass the line of hungry patrons, and are blessed with Pizza so good, that it’s almost upsetting to eat.

We’re let in on a secret of the locals. Eat a massive meal of Pizza, let it settle in your stomach, and only then do you start to drink. The pizza acts as a sponge, and you’ll be hangover free. Elisa mentions that her friends are having a house party, and invites us out. It seems as though we’ll be able to put this Pizza theory to the test.

We walk into the backyard of Giovani’s house, both he and the rest of the guests are all in their young twenties, huddled around a patio table cluttered with two giant pizza boxes and half-drunken beers. The strung patio lights and soft music complimented the adorning gardens that were delicately manicured. Italian was being thrown across the table, and the entire environment felt simultaneously so foreign, but yet so familiar.

I still find this hard to believe, but one of the pizza toppings was… French fries. It’s a popular topping amongst northern Italian locals. Go figure.

Giovanni makes a clear effort to make us feel welcome, he pulls up chairs for us, hands us two beers out of his well-stocked cooler, and the conversation turns from high Italian energy to broken English. Everyone’s taking great interest in the two Canadians sitting in this backyard, as amongst the guests, the furthest anyone had traveled was a plane ride out to Spain.

It’s fun being a novelty, for both them and for us. Tequila shots inaugurate us, the table is cleared off, chairs are pushed out, music is turned up, and we’re nominated to be the first challengers at a game of beer pong. Some things are just a universal language.

Despite living in different worlds, we understood each other through the fun, hope, and confusion of being twenty-year-olds. It wasn’t spoken, but it was felt and bonded us.

More people filtered into the party, and being a tight group of twenty friends, each new arriving guest took interest in getting to know us, often with excitement followed by a big Italian bear hug.

The night played on and my shirt that had dried from the day’s sweaty hike was now damp with beer. Despite that, it seemed that throughout the night, someone always had their arm around our shoulder. A constant reminder that we were welcomed.

Interestingly, there’s a strong sense of community amongst the group. Unlike Canadian parties where everyone’s eating prior and bringing their own alcohol, Italian house parties everyone eats together, and the host generously provides the alcohol for the night. It’s the little things that create that strong sense of unity, and largely reminded us that we weren’t home anymore.

Throughout the night we’re given a guitar to serenade the group, reigns of the DJ booth, and are taught more swear words than I can manage to remember. We danced and laughed our way till the early hours in the morning where the music became no louder than a whisper so that the neighbours could sleep through to sunrise.

With a long journey to Slovenia the next day, the night finally drew to a close with the soon-rising sun, and we went through the difficult emotions of saying goodbye to our friends that had hoped we would spend a couple more nights in Grappa. We too wanted to stay, why would anyone want to leave?

Our difficult goodbyes in Morocco to Asbjørn and Keiven brought us to Grappa. I started to learn, that saying goodbye and moving on is just as much, a part of the adventure.

Speak soon,

J