In the summer of 1999, my brother and I decided to take a trip to Italy, just us, a ‘fratema’ vacation (fratema in our dialect means ‘my brother’). Out of my 30+ trips to Italy, this adventure has always been one of my favorites, with the best souvenirs being the memories and stories that hilariously came out of this trip. These stories are often shared, repeatedly, around tables with friends and family, with wine and antipasti and bread and cheeses – and speaking of cheese, allow me to share one of the most unforgettable moments of this particular vacation…
We would start and end in Torino, where my family lives, and then catch trains, from Milan to Rome, Pisa to San Remo, running from city to city, seeing sight after sight, eating along the way like maniacal foodies on a culinary pilgrimage through the Motherland. To date, one of the best vacations I have ever taken, and that has everything to do with my brother, my best friend, and my most favorite of all travel partners.
After a whirlwind trek through the boot, we returned to Torino and were left with a few days to spend time with family and to get our bags ready for the return trip back to the U.S. That part of the trip always fills me with anxiety – getting the dreaded bags ready. I suppose I’m somewhat traumatized – every return trip over the years has been characterized by overweight bags, too many bottles of wine and liqueur, and a plethora of questionable items like fava bean seeds, dried wild oregano, jarred olives, and cheeses. I’m hesitant, but coerced by family pressure and absolute deliciousness of these treasures – I always give in, go through the ritual stress, and carry a picture of St. Anthony in my pocket.
As if I wasn’t already nervous enough about my bags, the day before leaving, my Mother called from the U.S. with a special request. I wasn’t surprised.
Mamma: “Ca…ca…portami nu pezzo i chia gorgonzola cu marscapone. Dici a ziata che sape unde va”
Me: “What? You’re nuts. You seriously think I’m bringing you back a piece of that stinky gorgonzola cheese? There’s no way. You’re crazy, lady. I got the Parmiggiano, it’s vacuum packed, and that’s it.”
Mamma: “Passami frateta” (asks for my brother)
Mamma: “Ro, ro, pidiami nu pezzo i chia gorgonzola cu marscapone.”
My brother: “Sure, no problem.”
And that’s when my stress level reached new heights, as he got off the phone and grabbed one of my cousins to head to the Formaggeria. They returned a short while later, with what appeared to be an 18″ long rectangular block of gorgonzola with marscapone, nestled tightly in a Styrofoam container, wrapped and sealed with plastic wrap. I watched as they discussed transport for the cheese, a refrigerated travel bag, and I reiterated that I wanted nothing to do with this cheese.
We depart early in the morning, and even in my grogginess, I am obsessed with this cheese. It traveled with us, and at a layover in London, sitting at the gate, I could have sworn I saw stinky wriggle lines coming from it. I could smell that pungent, but delicious, aroma that only gorgonzola embodies.
When we finally land back in the U.S., I reach up to retrieve our bags from the overhead. A fellow passenger comments, “Oh my, did someone have beer up here? My bag smells funny.” I shrugged my shoulders in ignorant bliss and gathered our stuff, including the cheese bag. Once in the airport, we go through security before heading to customs. Still carrying the cheese bag, my eyes focus on the Customs Declaration sign. “No animal byproducts” flashes over and over in my mind, like a neon sign in the Vegas strip. My brother is a few people behind me, and somehow, without the cheese bag. I’m nervous, and at this point of no return, I place the bags on the belt, including the cheese bag, and go through the metal detector.
“Do you have cheese in your pockets,” the agent asked me. “What? Pardon?” I couldn’t believe my ears. I looked back at my brother with an intense look of panic and mouthed, “They know.” The agent repeats, “Do you have cheese in your pockets?” Considering I didn’t, I responded, “No, no, I have steel-toe boots on, though?” He pats me down and has me move along, as I gather the bags and wait for my brother before heading through Customs. At this point, I’m sweating, feeling a little lightheaded, and nervous.
“Did you hear that? They totally know we have the cheese. I knew this was a bad idea.”
My brother replies in his usual calm and soothing voice, smirking, “Carlo, he said ‘keys‘…he said, Do you have keys in your pocket?”