I received a lovely email this morning from an intern at My Table Magazine, requesting my "favorite food memory while traveling" for an upcoming issue. Because I realize that My Table is soliciting these food memories from numerous people and probably doesn't need my rambling recollection, and because I realize that my favorite food memory while traveling involves foul language and fighting, I sent the intern my much shorter, second-favorite memory.
But it seemed a waste not to share my true favorite. Foul language and all.
I was traveling through the southern part of Austria when I was 15 years old, the part of the country that abuts Italy and shares the magnificent, snowy Alps with its neighbor to the south along with many culinary traditions. To this day, the best margherita pizza I've ever had came from a tiny restaurant in Kitzbühel.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy the wealth of Austrian food while I was there: Jause for breakfast with freshly sliced ham, savory speckknödel and spätzle at lunch, thinly pounded pieces of crispy Wiener schnitzel for dinner, brilliantly simple apple strudel for dessert. But when you're 15 years old, you simply can't resist the siren call of McDonald's -- if only to see what a Big Mac in a foreign country tastes like and whether they'll serve you beer with it.
I wandered into a McDonald's in Innsbruck around midnight with several of my friends. One was Colombian, one Polish, and two were American. We were all speaking English as we strolled through the restaurant to the counter, all the way at the back. We passed a table of four Italians, all of whom looked like they were in their early twenties.
"Fucking stupid Americans," they laughed at us as we passed. They seemed drunk. One of them spit at us. The loogie landed harmlessly on the ground, but the gauntlet had been thrown. They continued to taunt us from afar, heckling and jeering as we ordered our food.
"Don't do anything stupid," my Polish friend warned me as I glared silently back at them from the counter. My temper often got the better of me when I was younger, and I was a little notorious for getting mean when angry. (To whit: I once wrecked Robbie Higdon's head with an Igloo cooler when he made fun of my glasses in fifth grade. We're friends now.)
"Those people are harassing us," my American friend tried to tell the sleepy-looking McDonald's employee. In the grand, universal tradition of fast-food employees everywhere, he simply shrugged his red-and-yellow-clad shoulders and returned to bagging our food.
On the way back out of the restaurant with our bags of burgers and fries, we passed the table again. One of the Italians -- a man -- had balled up his cheeseburger wrapper and a few other items of refuse into a wad. "You're nothing but American trash!" he yelled, and I watched -- as if it was in slow motion -- as the ball of trash and discarded food came arching out of his hand and straight at my friend's head.
It pinged her in the forehead and bounced to the ground. The Italians fell out laughing. My friend started cursing at them in Polish. "Pierdol sie!" she hissed at them. "Ty kurwo!"
They roared with laughter: "Even better! A Pole!"
And before I knew it, the top was off of my strawberry shake, the arm holding it winding back and then forward like a slingshot. "Fuck you!" I growled, as a pink arch of shake floated silently through the air, aimed squarely at the Italians. They dove out of the way, except for one. The strawberry liquid hit one of the Italian girls straight in the face, coating her from forehead to chin with the gloop and dripping down onto her shirt. I couldn't have hit her more precisely with the shake if the cup had been equipped with a laser sight.
Both groups fell quiet for what seemed like five minutes, but was merely a few seconds. No one even dared breathe. It was on.
One of the Italians lurched forward and took a swing at me. I ducked -- barely missing his fist -- and scurried away like the girl that I am.
"Run!" one of my friends screamed. We dropped our food and took off, the Italians close behind. At the first cobblestoned intersection, we split into pairs. The Italians continued chasing me and my friend, until she ducked off down another street, panting and sprinting. They wanted me.
But I had the benefit of being a teenager, with a body not wracked by years of immobile beer-drinking, pasta-eating and chain-smoking, and I managed to outrun them to a point. I ducked into the first safe-looking haven I saw -- a church -- closing the heavy doors behind me quickly and quietly. I'd ended up inside the Dom zu St. Jakob, a place I'd intended to visit on my trip anyway, although under different circumstances.
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I laid down in a pew in the cool, still darkness of the church, my back on the hard wood and my eyes facing upwards, adjusting to the lack of light and focusing on the gilded frescoes above. I tried not to breathe too loudly for fear the Italians had followed me in. After 10 minutes spent in quiet contemplation of the angels on the ceiling and the stupidity of throwing a shake at a group of much older hooligans, I snuck back out and left.
Walking quietly through the dark, empty streets of Innsbruck, I wondered if the McDonald's would still have our food. Should I go back and get it? Those Italians were long gone -- I'd be a hero for bringing our burgers back to the hotel! I ultimately decided against it, taking the entire episode as a lesson from the universe.
That lesson? Don't eat at McDonald's while you're in a foreign country.
And you? What is your favorite food diplomacy moment from travels past? Or, as in my case, your most splendid food diplomacy failure?