Beautiful friends at a beautiful table

During my first and only trip to Paris in 2005, I remember running through the deep underbelly of a Metro station—perhaps Gare de Lyon or Concorde—to switch lines. Each station has its own personality, a distinct look and feel such that I found the Metro to be as engaging an experience as exploring the Louvre or relaxing in the Luxembourg Gardens.

As my then-husband and I sprinted around a white-tiled corner, the sound of classical music grew louder. We brushed past scores of Parisians only to discover that it was not a recording as we had assumed, but an actual string orchestra playing hundreds of feet below the surface.

Suddenly, our departing train held less meaning.

We stopped to listen, noting that only in Paris could one hear something so heavenly in the subway; only in Paris would the police not shuffle off the musicians who played as passersby filled their velvet-lined cello case with bills and coins. I suppose, on one level, they were hustling for money, but what was a Euro in exchange for the generosity of their performance?

I thought back to those musicians as a man began to strum his guitar next to me on the 71 Express headed downtown on Tuesday evening. The sun peeked through inky clouds, warming my face with the kind of orange that can only be found at sunset. I closed my eyes for a minute, then opened them to find the elderly couple across from me smiling and holding hands.

“Whoever is playing that guitar, I’m going to ask you to stop immediately. If I hear it again, I’ll pull over and you can to walk to wherever you’re going,” growled the driver over the intercom, proving my point from 2005. The guitarist grumbled under his breath and stopped playing.

As we pulled up to a light on Eastlake, the bus—now markedly silent—idled rhythmically. I tapped my foot to the beat without realizing it, only to be joined by the gentle strum of his guitar, just above the level of audibility.

“Okay, that’s it. I’m pulling over at the next stop, and you’re getting off,” the driver said sharply.

“You know what? You’re a mean man,” spat the guitarist, standing up to point at him ominously. I couldn’t place his accent; from his curly dark hair, I thought he might be Spanish.

“I can see into your heart,” he continued. “Inside your heart, I see a mean-spirited man, twisted, like he wants to take everyone else’s happiness away because he’s miserable. I feel sorry for you.”

His assessment seemed to ring home. The driver didn’t make good on his threat to pull over; instead, he drove on as if the incident never happened, whistling to himself, then announcing the upcoming Convention Center stop. The elderly woman across the aisle said quietly, “We were enjoying your music.”

This weekend, I found myself thinking back to other European memories, experiences that could have happened nowhere else, such as buying a passatutto in Orvieto with Helen on the day she left for Florence.

Along with Iole, we gathered at Helen’s home on Eastlake to christen our passatutti with homemade pomodoro sauce made from Tony’s recipe, which I’ve been storing in my mind since October.

Killer heirloom tomato

We sliced and sauteed two unbelievably huge heirloom tomatoes as Iole pointed out that their color, a gentle off-red, reminded her of tomatoes from Tony’s garden rather than what one typically finds in America. As they cooked down in the oil, butter, and slices of onion, the tomatoes released a fragrant bouquet, one that each of us recognized from Tony’s kitchen.

We reminisced about the triumphs and foibles of last summer, landing on the fated quality that our meeting held and the fast friendship that we found in each other. Two years ago, neither Helen nor I had even heard about NIAUSI or Civita, and neither one of us knew Iole; today, we acknowledge that our lives wouldn’t be the same without that experience and each other.

Like a passatutto, Italy distilled our lives, sifting out what we didn’t need during our stay. What remained was a rich concoction of memories, friendship, growth, and the courage to continue exploring the world.

Helen and I mugged for Iole’s camera as we turned the blades of our strainers, marveling at the luscious liquid that appeared in the bowls beneath. As we scraped the heavier sauce from the undersides with a spatula, Iole’s eyes grew wide and she said, “Now that—that is gold.”

We sighed at our first bites of orrechiette, savoring the taste of yesterday and today on our tongues. “Buonissimo,” Iole declared. We had tapped into a rich vein of Technicolor scratch-and-sniff memory. For a moment, we were transported to a table dressed in pink and white linens inside a small stone house high above town.

As Helen and I lamented our subsequent return to work-a-day lives post-Civita, rather than opening our NIAUSI cafe as we had dreamed of doing in May 2011, I thought back to that moment on the Rialto Bridge when I asked Iole, “When places like Venice and Civita exist, what does the rest of it matter?”

Like the makings of a flavorful pomodoro sauce—which is born from skins, seeds, and pulp—perhaps there’s a necessity to life’s discardable components, the constraints that frame our experience and drive us to make something richer out of ourselves and the world as we find it. What breaks free is concentrated, complex, flavorful, mature—yet dependent upon the pith for its existence.

Our resulting relationships and adventures, friendships, trials, achievements, disappointments, loves, losses, and everything that those experiences teach us—I think that’s the gold.