For the last four months of 2017, I lived alone in Torino, in a random apartment about forty minutes by foot from the bakery where I was located for my stage/internship. Six days a week, I woke up at 2:00 a.m., ate a quick breakfast, and then went out, in the dark, alone, to walk to work. There, I spent the next dozen or so hours on my feet mixing and folding dough, shuffling large bins around to manage the fermentation process, carrying sack after 25 kilogram-sack of flour, running downstairs to the storage room to get specialty ingredients (also typically in 25 kilogram sacks), and, finally, cleaning the mixers and then the entire lab.
For ten to twelve hours.
For four months.
There was little new from day to day (it took a few weeks to figure everything out, but after that, nothing much changed), and it was hard work. I learned a lot, but in the way in which it doesn't feel like you're learning: muscle memory kind of stuff, like how a dough sounds when it's at the right stage of gluten development in the mixer, how it feels like when it's ready to be shaped, and then also some organizational things, like how to keep track of thirty different doughs at different stages of fermentation while you're busy doing other stuff.
But still, it was a lot. No real break, no meal (I often brought a very-American Snickers bar to give me an energy boost around nine in the morning). But at least there were other people, and thanks to them the time passed relatively quickly.
Then I would go back to the apartment and stuff as much food as I could into my famished, exhausted body as quickly as possible. And then I'd sit there, in the darkened room (attempting to trick myself into falling asleep around 6 or 7 in the evening), alone.
I've never been much into TV (especially Italian TV), so I didn't watch it. My internet connection was a terrible shared hotspot (which required me to log in every time I wanted to use it), so mindlessly browsing the web was a chore. And I was living as leanly as possible out of a big suitcase, so I had no access to books or movies or most other comforts.
So what I ended up doing in those too-short afternoons when I should've been resting but couldn't, when I could've been exploring Torino but didn't have the energy to, when I wanted to relax but had too much on my mind, was make bread.
Yep, after working 12 hours in a bakery, I returned to my apartment and kept making bread. I experimented with flours that I bought from local mills, with different levels of hydration and variations to my sourdough starter, with different fermentation methods, different approaches to baking, and finally with some stranger ideas I was kicking around that I thought might add up to something new from bread I'd never seen before: odd preferments, infused liquids, glazes, doughs wrapped in other doughs, sweet and savory combinations, incorporating sometimes-strange ingredients that I found at various farmers' markets and specialty shops.
I had a lot of failures, a lot of bread that ended up wasted. But I was learning something crucial about what kind of baker I wanted to be. And, really, about the kind of person I am.
I found the work in the bakery boring and tedious, but the approach to baking I took when I got home was thrilling, energizing. I was tired of the discorse surrounding artisan breadmaking and ancient grains and the health-centric sort of baking so in vogue right now, but I found I love studying the history of cuisine, learning about the raw materials and attempting to gain a profound understanding of the science of cooking and breadmaking. And while I understand the appeal and the value of traditional breads and their place in shaping the culture we have today, I'm much more interested in discovering what's next. In experimenting. Creating.
But here's the thing: this, too, felt empty.
In retrospect, all I'd done was find a way to distract myself. To occupy my otherwise-vacant afternoons in the dark apartment. To stimulate my brain after hours of monotony. But I was still alone. Lonely, if I'm being honest.
My wife, my partner-in-crime, my one true friend in the whole world, was still in Bologna. And though we talked for a bit on the phone every day and saw each other most Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings, the distance was not just physical. We'd talk past each other on the phone, which I realize now was really just me not listening, not really being there. The loneliness I felt was near-unbearable. Some mornings I'd struggle to get out of bed, not because it was 2:00 a.m., but because I didn't see the point. I'd binge eat terrible food. Go nights without sleeping at all. At least I wasn't really drinking much.
When I saw my wife on the weekend, at our apartment in Bologna, she did everything possible to make me feel at home, feel supported. But I was distant, aloof, and didn't fully appreciate how hard things were for her, also living alone in this foreign country, starting a new business of her own, struggling to make ends meet and keep up with the paperwork and bills and maintenance of the apartment and her office and everything else (often on my behalf). And yet she still managed to give me one day a week of feeling like things were normal. I did nothing to deserve this.
It all came to a head on Christmas, when I ruined what began as a Perfect Day in the beautiful snowy ski town of Bardonecchia by again allowing myself to drift away, into my head, into some time and place other than the one we were in, ignoring the gifts I had right in front of me for long-repressed feelings of guilt and isolation and numbness and who knows what else. Put simply, I wasn't there. I haven't been there for too long.
That's the kind of person I am. But not the kind of person I want to be. My wife, the rest of my family—I owe them more than that. I want to give more than that. I am deeply regretful and I am working very hard to change.
We often romanticize solitary geniuses. Great men living in worlds of their own making. And in the food industry, this myth is persistent and pernicious. These geniuses work long hours, nights, weekends, holidays, in brutal physical and mental conditions, they drink heavily, do drugs, have short tempers, yell a lot, and treat other people (especially women—more on this in a future post) like shit, but somehow we excuse that (we celebrate it, even) because what they produce is so beautiful, so innovative, so important.
I say fuck that.
I don't believe in work that is self-important. I don't believe in work that requires us to give up basic human decency. I don't believe in work that makes us feel significant but that detaches us from the world around us. I don't believe in work that convinces us we are geniuses, Gods, or that we somehow live outside of and above the rest of humanity. I don't believe in work that keeps us from knowing our spouses, from keeping in touch with our families, from having real friends. I don't believe in work that distances us from the people we love.
We are only here for a short time. And we are here together for even less.
For me, at least, it's way past time to start acting like it.