“How was your food, sir?” said the waiter.
I just stared at him.
Sometimes you're faced with questions that are such a can of worms, that offer so many places to start your answer that you're struck dumb, your mind filled with unfurling possibilities and your mouth flapping in the vain hope that one of them will reach daylight through it.
I wanted to explain to him that the food I'd just had was the best, the very best I'd enjoyed anywhere, ever. I'm no stranger to the gustative magic of Mediterranean food, but this had been a ticker-tape parade of taste, a wild, raucous party going on in my mouth (now moved to my stomach). Here in the hills above Giulianova, surrounded by the rolling green quilt of Italy's Abruzzo region, I'd had the word “food” redefined for me.
But that seemed hackneyed and inadequate. Instead, I felt the urge to explain that I came from England, a country where all too often, food wasn't a social event, a chance to sit down with your neighbours and loved ones or to turn strangers into friends. It was something done hurriedly, in between more important things. You shovelled the calories down and then you left. Sometimes you forgot you were eating at all, your eyes glued to a book or a flickering television. Mealtime was No Big Deal. And looking around at all the tables arranged at this oh-so-very-Italian wedding feast, I could see how desperately broken that relationship with food was in comparison with the one I was enjoying a glimpse of here.
But that seemed too philosophical. He didn't want philosophy: he was merely being polite, on the way to clearing away my plate. And if he did that, I wouldn't have anywhere to put the dollop of carbonara I'd been eyeing for the last couple of minutes, waiting just the right amount of time to be polite before I pounced.
So I said “Delicious. Mm!”, made a faintly ludicrous lip-smacking gesture that instantly singled me out as Foreign, and held my plate down on the table so he couldn't whip it away. With a bemused air and the hint of a cocked eyebrow the waiter moved on, leaving me to gaze down the table at the still-absurd amount of food laid out for us, at the laughing, giggling, chattering guests basking in the afternoon sunshine. In a week I'd be back in England, where food didn't usually make this happen between people.
Well – now I knew better.
And then I thought of the answer I should have given the waiter – the best and only real answer under the circumstances.
“It's a good start.”