PA-RI-TAY! PA-RI-TAY! PA-RI-TAY!
No, not par-tay, but pa-ri-tay. And, no, I’m not freaking out, I’m obsessing about the exchange rate. Parity, if you’re wondering, is the point at which two currencies reach equilibrium, and the unthinkable might just happen. Only last summer the idea that the dollar and the euro could ever see parity again was laughable. That was when one euro would cost you about a buck fifty. Lo, how the mighty have fallen! In the last week the euro has hovered around $1.20 and there is serious talk that within the year we could be seeing a one-to-one exchange rate. Which is all nice but pretty abstract to most Americans, until they travel to Europe. Look, I’m not wishing anybody in Europe any hard luck, but I’ve been at the mercy of the exchange rate so often that I figure it’s about time I caught a break. Think about the implications of that .30 euro slide. My purchasing power in Europe has recently gone up by almost one-fourth. That’s no great shakes if you’re talking about a week and a few hundred dollars. But for five weeks, including groceries, transportation, incidentals, that’s pretty significant. How would you like to get a 20% raise out of the blue?
And the nice thing is that my good fortune doesn’t come at the expense of my Italian hosts. That’s what’s so weird about exchange rates, they’re so abstract and...what, mechanistic? It’s like some monetary deus ex machina is jiggering the nominal value of currency to see how we mere mortals react. Their prices don’t go up or down, but what I’m paying in real terms does. Really weird.
I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been in Italy when the exchange rate was just horrendous. We’re talking $18 American for a take-out sandwich and bottle of water. Granted, it was an Italian sandwich, and absolutely delicious. But, come on, you know? You find yourself obsessively calculating prices and trying to convince yourself that there’s some way to justify $40 for that widget manufactured in Sienna that you could buy in the States for $20, manufactured in...well, Sienna. Same item, same quality, it’s the friggin’ exchange rate.
But I’ve also been the beneficiary, let me joyously confess. I recall one of the most glorious meals I’ve ever eaten in my life, for which I would have gladly paid whatever was asked...but didn’t. We were leading a tour and had arrived in Rome on the day of our fifteenth anniversary, June 23. Many of the Italian restaurants run the tour groups through from 6 pm to 8 pm on a prix fixe menu, typically a primo, almost always some sort of pasta, a secondo, or entree, and a simple dolce. It’s usually not bad, but it’s usually not much better than adequate either. Then when the Italians come out to dine, beginning at nine, they’ve pretty much made their ‘nut’ as the restaurateurs say, and can focus on providing a premium dining experience for the regulars.
We were lucky that we had some wonderful kids along who didn’t have to be watched every minute, so we bailed on the prix fixe dinner and made reservations, through the good graces of our wonderful local guide, at a nice ristorante out on the Via Flaminia called “Da Benito”. Nina had passed along the word that this was an anniversary dinner, and when we arrived, there was already a table waiting with two glasses of prosecco, a delicious Italian sparkler made in the Veneto, and antipasti of melone e prosciutto, which I absolutely adore. Something about the sweetness of the cantaloupe in contrast with the salty funk of that cured porker is just perfect. It reminds me of how much Southern cuisine can mimic or at least parallel Italian; I love to salt and pepper my cantaloupe and almost sent one of my Food Nazi friends from the North into paroxysms the first time she saw it. No surprise, when I asked if she’d ever tried it before criticizing, she acted like I had proposed harelipping the Pope. But any good cook knows that nothing brings out sweetness like a hint of salt, and as far back as Roman cuisine pepper was being used with sweets as counterpoint.
Already by this time the two foodies were in transports of bliss. We ordered two pastas as primi and shared. One was excellent but the second was nothing less than spectacular, taglietalle con vodka ed’astice. After the first bite we were moaning softly and rolling our eyes to heaven. The pasta itself was handmade, of course, as it always is in a good Italian restaurant, preferably by a couple of nonne (grannies) who come in every day and are given their orders, so many ‘eggs’ of tagliatelle so many of tortelli, and so on. And that’s all they need to know to go to work: one egg per 100g of flour, plus salt, water and maybe a bit of olive oil, plus pure culinary amore. The astice is a type of spiny lobster that is common in Mediterranean waters. The sauce was exquisite, creamy, subtle, with vodka as a binding agent (the alcohol burns off and leaves a subtle funk which is irreplaceable. Believe me, I’ve tried to replicate it). By this time our moans were very nearly orgasmic and nearby patrons looked alarmed. The little shells of the lobster were incorporated into the sauce, and when the proprietor saw us greedily sucking the shells he began to beam. Needless to say it was pretty obvious we were enjoying our meal.
The secondi were veal cutlets with roasted potatoes and a veggie, excellent, but pretty anticlimactic after that pasta course. All accompanied by the simple, clean, delicious white wine from just south of Rome, Frascatti. Dessert was accompanied by more prosecco and was delicious frutti di bosco (wild berries) on panna cotta, a type of Italian flan. By this time I was so enamored of the chef that I asked to speak to him and proposed marriage if he would only agree to shave his legs, and Signore Benito was positively misty-eyed with pleasure. When we asked him to call us a taxi he refused and insisted on driving us back to the hotel himself, and to this day we treasure the pictures we have of him leaving us, stuffed but ecstatic, at the hotel door.
So, as I said, I would have happily sold Amy’s birthright to pay for that meal. But when I received the statement on my debit card a month later? Sixty-eight bucks. Sixty-eight shekels for a four-course meal and two bottles of wine, plus a very generous if well deserved tip and chaffeur service! I felt positively guilty! Exchange rates!
Of course, calculating those rates has become exponentially simpler since the adoption of the euro, but I have to tell you, I sort of miss the dear old lira in a perverse way. How often does an American have the luxury of paying $113,000 for dinner? Makes you feel like a plutocrat, I’m here to say, even if it was only about $75 American. But the lira sure made paying for things a challenge. Imagine an assortment of $100, $500, $1000, $5000, $10,000, $50,000 and $100,000 bills...not to buy a new villa on the Amalfi Coast but to pay for groceries. And the coins! God as my witness, I once received two one-lira coins in change. I kept them as a souvenir. You think the penny is a useless inconvenience? Amen, bruthahs and sistahs! But imagine dealing with a coin worth $0.0007. And yet making change was such a pain in the tuckus for cashiers that they always asked if you had anything remotely approaching correct change. I finally gave up and just started extending my hand with all the change I had in my pocket, allowing the cashier to fish around for whatever he or she wanted from that seemingly random assortment. Did they cheat me? I seriously doubt it. Four times before I started this new system I had the humiliation of receiving back some of the coins I’d so proudly offered up as ‘correct’ change.
So I’m looking for parity. But even at $1.00:1.20, the mental gymnastics of paying the bill in Italy will be a whole lot more boring this year. I think I can deal with that.