When I traveled through Europe in 1991, passenger trains still had enclosed compartments, like tiny manhattan studios shared by 6 strangers. I got to my train just before it was scheduled to leave, so most of the compartments were already full. I walked from car to car until a quintet of rotund Italian grandmothers grinned at me timidly, their sparsely populated mouths serving as invitations to fill the only vacant seat left on the train.
I hoisted my giant backpack onto the luggage rack, wiggled into my seat, took a deep breath, and greeted them, “Buongiorno, Signore.” They appreciated that I knew to use a formal greeting, and thanked me with slow nods of approval. La signora directly across from me, whose knees were pressed against mine (out of tightness of quarters, not intimacy), asked if I was hungry – “Hai Fame?” I was hungry, but also justifiably leery of strangers with meals. Hours of silence passed until I acquiesced to their offer.
They spoke amongst themselves in a southern dialect I couldn’t understand. I assumed they were discussing the menu. The woman across from me reached into her giant bosoms and pulled out a foot long, three inch thick salami wrapped in some kind of loose netting. Just in case I’m not being clear – a grandmother wearing a peasant dress with an apron sewn into it, had a huge salami stored somewhere in the vicinity of her breasts. That’s where she chose to keep her uncut lunch meat. Between trying not to jump out of the window and forcing my mind to stop imagining the smell of her chest, the only energy I had left was used to say, “Grazie.”
In a moment of confusion, fear, and hunger, I had accepted the offer of an Italian grandmother to sample her 98.6 degree foot long. She wasn’t the least bit surprised, as if Italian teenagers typically ate meat stored against another person’s skin. One of the other women supplied a baguette, another a jar of mustard. La Signora Salami then reached in a paper bag she had stowed above her and pulled out a knife, so long I almost feel justified calling it a sabre. I suppose if those were her only two belongings, and one of them had to be stored between her breasts, she chose wisely.
The three ladies got to work. The salami was sliced thickly, the baguette dissected lengthwise, then surgically coated with a thin layer of brown mustard from an unmarked jar. The vessel was passed carefully down to the end of the assembly line where it was layered with stacks of freshly cut glistening salami, so peppery it stung my eyes. She closed the lid and presented the sandwich to me like a nurse handing a mother her newborn baby. I accepted it from her carefully, paying it the respect it deserved.
I opened my mouth as they gazed in anticipation. I bit down and the crust of the baguette flaked into a dust around my mouth. I fought with the beast for a moment like I was reeling in a marlin. I tugged and bit harder, until I ripped off a chunk – half in my mouth, half out. The lunch ladies were motionless … staring. I tore off the dangling section, and began chewing. It was sweet and juicy but also tangy and bitter. With mustard crusting in the corners of my mouth, and part of the bite stored in my cheek, I said, “Buonisimo!” They couldn’t have been more pleased.
So, to the youngsters out there who are traveling and trying to experience everything there is in life … don’t let the storage location of a salami get between you and the best sandwich you’ll ever have.