Here’s a little anecdote: on my first trip to Europe in 2005 I spent five weeks in Montpellier, France as part of my MFA residency. I loved the city and loved the country, and spent many afternoons leisurely walking the streets alone, taking in the sights and smells and sounds of a place that felt slightly off-center from the world I knew. Capri pants, for one thing (before the summer was over I’d buy two pair), the music, too, and of course the food and the general vibe of the city. I wasn’t home, that was for sure.
The ice cream was another flag. Over the course of that summer, everywhere I looked people were walking with ice cream cones, but for some inexplicable reason the scoop of ice cream on top of the cone was just a little golf ball-sized plop. Who would bother waiting in line for that tiny tease? I didn’t understand it. It would take four of those things before I even felt it in my stomach.
One day early in those first days in Montpellier I went in to buy an ice cream of my own. Even after these few days, the smaller serving was starting to look a bit more normal. I was getting used to seeing them. When I got inside, though, I was relieved to see that they had different sizes. I didn’t have to order the little golf ball like everyone else. They had four: petit, moyen, grand, and americain.
I failed French in junior high, but I translated those words pretty quickly. I forget what size I ordered on that first visit (too on-the-nose to order the americain, that was for sure), but by the end of the summer I was walking the streets of Montpellier licking petit ice cream cones and showing off my navy blue capris pants.
I’ve traveled to Europe seven times since then, and, yes, truth be told, ice cream (or gelato) is one big reason why.
A quick disclaimer: I’m no ice cream snob. I love a good homemade scoop, of course, from a farm with the cows grazing in the near background. But my go-to fix usually comes from Dairy Queen.
In Amsterdam in 2013 my wife and I wandered into a dessert and pastry shop but ended up getting soft serve cones instead. We had little expectation, since they were just soft serves from a machine, but we ended up talking about how good they were the rest of the trip. Rich and creamy, yes, but each had a stripe of flavor twisting through the construction—hers was caramel, mine fudge. Christine called it the best ice cream she’d ever had (something she’d say again and again over the next several years). Was it actually the best? Who knows. Did the moon’s reflection off the canals’ calm surfaces have anything to do with it? Amsterdam’s lit stone canal bridges?
In 2017 we were in the Nyhavn district of Copenhagen, watching people and boats and sitting at a small outdoor table with drinks, enjoying the unfolding night after a long day of walking and exploring. But when we needed to stretch our legs, we meandered a few blocks to Vaffelbagaren for the evening ice cream. It was a popular spot, a take-a-number kind of place, but that was okay—we had nowhere to be. Behind the row of cashiers I watched a young woman working the cone machine, which to me looked like a giant waffle maker except, of course, that it molded the output into oversized cones. And it was worth the wait: warm, crunchy and soft, it added a fresh and distinct flavor to a night that was already stimulating all the other senses. Back on the sidewalk, we ate and watched through a low window the making of all these cones—pretty much to order. She worked hard, and the aroma blanketed the entire block in an invisible awesome-bomb.
A street musician plucked his guitar somewhere behind the crowd; a tugboat out on the main waterway belched its deep horn; bicyclists drifted over the Nyhavnsbroen Bridge as though floating; and we sat on driftwood curbs and ate our ice creams. I thought of the sleeves of packaged cones I saw back home in almost every ice cream shop I’d been in. The U.S. can be an insular place, but the idea that we’re on the top of some kind of pyramid with everyone else wishing they were us is a myth, and that ice cream reminded me of this truth once again. Denmark is the happiest country in the world for a reason.
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Gelato quite literally saved the day in Venice.
Our bags hadn’t made the connecting flight in Paris. It had been an early-morning flight and we’d been up since 3 a.m. to see college students off on their journeys home from Bilbao, Spain. Because we’d gotten up so early, we’d put on the same clothes as the day before with the idea that we’d shower and start fresh once settled in Venice. Much of the afternoon was a bust, lingering first in the Venice airport far too long looking for information about our missing bags, then pacing in our hotel room on the phone with Air France. By the time we relented and went out for a walk, we were annoyed, hungry, sweaty, and gross. The sun was setting and the city was settling into a beautiful piece of evening art, but we couldn’t see it through the fog of despair. I kept thinking about a fellow student years earlier who’d waited two weeks for her luggage to show up during a study abroad summer session. We’d be moving on to Florence in a couple days. What if the bags weren’t here by then?
You can read all about our Venice trip here.
The narrow street we’d been blindly meandering emptied into Campo San Barnaba, a charming square with outdoor dining, street music, Gondolas drifting down a narrow canal, and the Chiesa di San Barnaba, the historic church housing several Da Vinci pieces. We ate outdoors and talked little. We ordered a bottle of wine—we needed it—and ate well and drank well. We felt dirty and Christine was resisting the urge to retreat to the hotel so she could call Air France one more time for an update. While we sat, we both eyed the GROM gelato shop directly across from us, its bright and welcoming façade and long line. We knew what we needed after the bottle of wine was empty.
We walked in just before closing. I ordered a scoop of coconut and a scoop of coffee, noce di cocco e caffé. The young girl behind the counter asked if I’d like crema. I don’t know Italian but I’m smart enough to say yes when someone in a gelato shop asks if I’d like crema.
She topped my cone with a gorgeous and rich dollop of homemade whipped cream, stuck a mini plastic spoon into it, and handed it off. The night was looking better.
Turns out, GROM is a chain, and there are three or four in Venice. We later stopped at one in Florence and again in Rome. A quick check online and I see that even New York has one now. But it doesn’t deter from the fact that this gelato is damn good. We sat on the stone steps of the church and listened to a gondolier singing, a welcoming breeze dancing through the square, savoring every last bite of this gelato without saying a single word to each other. But the night, and Venice, was saved.
* * *
Like I said, I’m no ice cream snob. Just as much as I long for any of those decadent treats I’ve mentioned, I’d always been just as happy with a packaged ice cream on a stick from a European convenience store freezer. I taught in a study abroad program two consecutive summers in San Sebastian, Spain, and while I certainly took advantage of a worthwhile gelato line on occasion, I can’t count how many times, in the middle of an afternoon, I’d detour into an open-front store and make my way to the freezer chest. I’d slide it open, a smoky wave of condensation pluming out like a magic trick, and I’d look over the dozen or so choices of ice cream. These little delicious sticks were just as goddamn good as any other ice cream I’d had in Europe. I could live off these things. For a euro or two I’d be on my way again with a small square of frozen perfection in my hand. You could never go wrong with a Magnum bar, of course, but Carrefour was just as good. I’d suck on the wooden stick for an hour after the ice cream was long gone. There was a wrapped cone sold by a company called Kalise that was near perfection.
Maybe I’m getting confused. Was the packaged ice cream-on-a-stick really that good? Or was it the city, the floodlights washing the winding ancient streets, the summer rain giving the cobblestones a moonlit shine, a group drunkenly singing from some bar around the corner, their voices, surprisingly good, carrying along the stone walls of Old Town? The night full of life and love and the kind of invisible energy you find only when people from all corners of the world have come together in celebrations both exuberant and intimate, raucous groups and quiet, intimate lovers sharing the night and the city. Couldn’t it have been that?
I don’t know.
And I don’t care.