The dessert menu arrives.
Otto nods, swirling back through the dense maze of white tablecloths. Clinking cutlery and soft conversation fill the sun-soaked yellow walls, lined with aging bottles and colorful paintings.
I gather it’s strawberry season: Cuore di cioccolato caldo di fragole. Chocolate lava cake with strawberries. Millefoglie di fragole. Puff pastry with strawberries. Cheesecake con salsa di fragole. The cheesecake piques my interest, not only because it’s easily translatable. I’ve already made up my mind, but it’s still reeling.
On most travel days, familiar actions lead to familiar reactions: When the airplane lands, there’s a slight sense of relief; when a foreign language reaches my ears, there’s at least a moment of helpless confusion. But when the dessert menu arrives after a leisurely two-course lunch with wine, there’s an empty space where guilt once lurked.
Sitting alone in the corner of a traditional Tuscan trattoria, I am waiting for the dark cloud from a decade ago—when I was a college backpacker here on a budget, when the joy of dining was stifled by paranoia. For even glancing. Uncomfortable in my own skin, my relationship with food was fraught. Just years before, careless treatment for a hormonal imbalance morphed my pubescent body into a scene of strange swollen curves, once described by an awkward admirer as “a Renaissance woman a bit late”—a compliment that only now I appreciate. Alas, low-rise jeans were trending and teenage boys hadn’t studied fine art.
Then, I couldn’t help but fret that everyone around me—the waiter taking my order, my friends sitting beside me—was thinking what I was: you don’t need this. My longing to fit into my skin didn’t stifle my wanderlust, but I knew the ingredients toward that goal weren’t on menus in this country. Long-legged Italian women didn’t help. They carelessly sipped whole-milk lattes and flicked flaky croissant crumbs off their fingers each morning, skinny cigarettes in hand. I was content with my herbal teas and breakfast smoothies, never seduced by tobacco, but I ached to know that freedom.
Sitting alone for the first time all week, I reflected on the past days as I studied the absence of my guilt, hours before my departure. Prior to this luxurious lunch, I was whisked from one business meeting to another, spotting familiar glimpses of Florence’s worn grandeur in between. Meals were settings for discussions, where I gave my colleagues full permission to order like a local on my behalf. Relinquishing that control was a milestone. Learning and tasting were the focus on this trip, with the panache I once envied.