FLORENCE, Italy – Fifteen minutes – that’s all there was.
An outsider would surely see this as a ridiculous proposition: being a minute late meant a missed train to Italy’s culinary capital Bologna. But on the inside of those minutes to spare was a chance to satisfy a long-standing craving: a nice, spicy curry.
Despite the long list of stunning tastes and meals that we’ve been lucky to try, nothing ever hits the spot for me like a good meal of rice and curry – typical meals from my home country of Sri Lanka.
Fine and delicate food was good, but real food, my parents taught me, should be an assault on your tastes buds: the spicier the better.
And that’s why I was running.
An amusing crossing of cultures, Bengalis, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankans have managed to make a sizeable community in Italy’s major cities. Just three years before, I heard my native tongue Sinhalese spoken on the streets of Florence, Italy. A mental note stuck in my head – next time you’re there – ask around.
As fate would have it, the internet café we dropped into to on our way out of Florence to make a call, was indeed owned by Sri Lankans.
I had to ask.
“Yes, it is nearby. I’ll show you, but hold on.”
Twenty minutes to spare became 15 as he helped a Brazilian with a money transfer. The Sri Lankan on the other side of the counter didn’t exactly see my desperation.
Eventually, out came a hand drawn map.
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Five minutes, not too far,” he said.
This pipe dream was plausible.
Outside Mike and Brian were grinning and shaking their heads. My craving they judged, probably accurately, just crossed from being merely crazy, to being insanely ridiculous. They were sure to put in their orders however.
Dashing out into the street with the map in hand, a gust of wind grabbed it and summarily planted it right behind a construction zone fence and out of my reach. What luck!
Two choices: either go back defeated, or bunker on with the mental image of the map. A couple blocks of futile searching and I was beginning to doubt the decision to keep running.
These wild goose chases have become a common place on the trip; a whisper of a curry house around the corner has me running. In San Jose, Costa Rica, where no one knows what street they’re on (trust us – even the security guards for parliament couldn’t point out where they were on the map) the dash for spice became a hopeless endeavor, where we were eventually pointed to a Peruvian Indian restaurant.
It took till Buenos Aires, Argentina to find the first real joint on the road. In Salvador, the Brazilians fortunately stocked curry powder and I was able to cook it. In England there was no dearth of curry houses, and Kenya and Tanzania offered up some of the best curry to be had outside of South Asia.
Panting from running around aimlessly and three weeks since my last taste of the spice, I was about to give up.
Maybe it’s because we come from a small country where seeing a fellow national abroad is a major novelty, but Sri Lankan’s have an uncanny ability to sniff out their country-mates.
Heading back to the train station deflated, I spotted a group of men sporting my shade of brown. Could it be?
Slowly passing by, trying to suss out their nationality, the unmistakable sing-song cadence of Sinhalese was coming out of their mouths.
I had to smile – the curry gods had done me a favor.
“It’s just around that corner,” they told me as I was already darting in the direction of their fingers.
And there it was…
Inside an array of delicacies that I had yet to see since leaving my mother’s kitchen table awaited me. With little time to spare, I gave the storeowner a 10 Euro note and told him to give me as much curry as one can buy with it.
With the bob of his head, that’s neither a nod nor a shake, something only a Sri Lankan can produce, he acknowledged my rush order and quickly filled an aluminum pan with food for the train.
Like a crazed idiot I was chatting away with the others in the restaurant next in line, saying how impressed I was that of all places in the world, to find curry here – in Florence, Italy.
A dash to the station and we found our seats on the train with a minute or two to spare.
And with that first bite of curry in my mouth, all was well – at least for another week or two…