“Do you drink tomato juice when you’re not flying?”, I ask my elegant seat neighbor on the plane. We have been sitting in friendly silence since our take-off from Cologne. My question opens a conversation that continues well past our landing at Napoli airport. She preserves tomatoes in different ways and informs me in great detail of their preparation. She usually fills the cooked tomatoes into bottles and boils the bottles once more or wraps them up in blankets. Whenever she is here in Italy, she prepares three or four bottles a day. Her garden is full of tomatoes. Sending ten bottles to Germany via mail costs 39 Euros. It’s less the other way round. She also sends German cucumbers to Italy, since potato salad tastes better with them. Once her son went there by car; she had him take 60 bottles with him. She gives a hearty laugh from behind her huge sunglasses. A whole recipe collection from Cilento follows, flanked by shopping tips in both directions of flight. All her imaginary purchases are accompanied by gestures she uses for checking the goods: small anchovies, large fish, bell peppers, eggplants, garlic. Oh, and the Mozarella has to be perfectly circular in shape, otherwise it isn’t fresh.

bell peppers in the oven
a pinch of garlic
bread crumbs
olive oil
olives – black or green, to taste
Mix well, fill the bell peppers with the mixture and put them back in the oven.

Her hands glide across the small folding table while she explains how to prepare the dish. She illustrates all her recipes with stories about who in her family likes to eat the dish in question best. She used to work at a dining hall in Salerno in 1961. That was the time when German tourists did not know what artichokes were and kept asking for potatoes. The she worked at a hospital in Cologne, first in the kitchen, then in the cafeteria, later in a nursing home. She has been commuting back and forth between Cologne and Cilento for 50 years now. She has three children and had no help whatsoever when they were young. She has always had a job.

She keeps Mettwurst and Bratwurst in her hand luggage. She was afraid to get in trouble at the security checks, but they didn’t say anything. She wants to cook German lentil soup for her Italian friends and is looking forward to it very much. Again she describes the preparation accurately, letting her hands glide across the little tabletop. Now that she and her husband are no longer working, they can spend as much time in Italy as they like.

While we are waiting for our suitcases at the baggage belt, I am the only one who knows that the pretty bag with the rose pattern has Mettwurst and Bratwurst inside. Good to know there are so few customs controls nowadays.

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