It was the year 2000 and life seemed simpler. The world seemed simpler. 9/11 hadn’t happened and I had no material possessions except for a backpack with about three changes of clothes and an ever-rotating paperback book – usually something I traded with someone in a hostel, so as to not carry extra weight while traveling. Even though cell phones had been around for two or three years, I had never owned one.
I had recently opened an email account on Hotmail (imagine), which I only checked about once a week. I wasn’t connected 24/7 to world events, to a president’s Twitter tantrums or to sensational headlines that seduce you into rabbit holes of trivial information, click after click.
In 1999, three years into an unfulfilling job working as an editor and production assistant in San Francisco, I decided enough was enough. I needed something more in my life, something that would give me something to dream for. I’d wake up morning after morning – usually hungover – and dread the coming day. As my mind raced, I saw a boring, monotonous future ahead of me. I imagined a predictable life, like a dreary theater production, with an ever-changing cast of characters, and me playing variations of the same role, over and over again. Young, freshly single and with no obligations other than to pay the rent, I bought a one-way ticket to Europe and worked my ass off for the rest of the year. I worked as an editor by day, and a parking lot attendant by night, seven days a week, and was able to amass a little over $10,000 by the end of the year, which was a fortune back then. And, depending on what part of Europe you were in – pre Euro conversion – those American dollars went a long way. I fondly remember paying the equivalent of twenty-five cents for a beer in a little basement bar in Budapest.
My ultimate destination on this trip was Barcelona, and for three months I wandered through Europe by train, itinerary be damned. I chose random places on the map and stayed for a few days sometimes, or sometimes a week. It was a simple, worry-free life, void of obligations and distractions, off the grid and often times lost in neighborhoods whose names I couldn’t even begin to pronounce.
I eventually made may way down to Napoli, where I checked into a dumpy budget hotel by the train station, locked my backpack in my room – in hindsight, probably not the brightest idea considering the clientele of that hotel – and went to wander the streets. By this point in my trip I had become accustomed to completely eschewing maps or points of interest (at that time, Let’s Go guides were de rigueur amongst backpackers) and enjoyed following my instinct. To be completely honest, I don’t remember the names of any of the streets or plazas I walked through that day, only that after about three or four hours of walking and stopping for the occasional beer, I was absolutely starving.
I had already been tracking back to my hotel near the station, and the streets were looking more and more run down. As is the case in many European cities, the closer you get to the train station, the dodgier the neighborhoods become. As I was walking, past dilapidated storefronts, street hawkers and women of ill repute – as they say – I came upon a street cart selling pizza. The aromas emanating from his little street cart were intoxicating – the fresh dough, the tomato sauce, the fresh-chopped basil – I was salivating. I pulled out some lira and motioned for the vendor to bake me one in the jerry-rigged oven thing he had attached to his cart. On a round, flat piece of dough, he ladled some sauce and plopped on some hunks of fresh mozzarella and a smattering of chopped basil leaves. He popped it in the oven and in what seemed like seconds my little pizza was ready, piping hot, folded in half and handed to me in a paper wrap. I’m not religious person – preferring to ascribe great art, music and cooking to the genius of our species – but the flavor burst and following endorphin rush as I wolfed down that little street pizza were simply divine. So much so, that I loitered around that guy’s cart and ordered three more. They were criminally cheap, as the lira to dollar conversion back in the day probably meant I was paying mere cents on the dollar for one of those little hunks of heaven.
The serendipity of that encounter in the dingy, unglamorous section of Napoli, my aching feet and roaring appetite, were the perfect combination. In this case it wasn’t the company I was keeping – I was alone and lonely at the time, surrounded by strangers whom I couldn’t understand. It was the surprise and simplicity of the meal. Literally, the most basic pizza I’ve ever eaten, to this day, eighteen years later, remains foremost in my mind as my most revelatory eating experience. I’ll never forget it.