Learning to Eat Like an Italian

By Val Karren

As I prepared to start writing my second novel, I travelled to Sicily to listen to Italians speak Italian, with everything but their voices. I don’t speak Italian, (well at least not that fast), and so I listened and observed carefully while in those locations that I had selected for settings in my new book.

There is no substitute for being present and alert in places and settings one wishes use in a story. The fine details discerned by being present are what give a story credibility and makes a story come alive.

Val hiking

After spending three days in the ancient port of Siracusa, I walked out of town with my backpack and a vague idea of where I would spend the next few nights. After thirty kilometers of cross country hiking through citrus and olive groves, slowly climbing the mountain toward my destination, the ancient town of Palazzolo Acreide, I had to overnight in a one horse town–a real workers town–that seemed honored by the visit of a lone tourist.

Town Square

Road SignsWith no restaurant open on Wednesday nights, and the grocers all closed at seven o’clock, I had to shuffle to the corner delicatessen in my flip-flops as fast as I could if I wanted any dinner. I waited patiently for the attention of the shopkeeper, allowing local grandmothers to order before me, even though I had arrived first. Finally, the good citizens of Canicatinni Bagni insisted that I could defer my order no longer, and refused to be served before me. I cleared my throat and stepped up.

“Very sorry. I do not speak Italian” I said in Italian.

“No problem. Use your hands.” the butcher replied waving his own above his head.

“Two sandwiches, please,” I sliced an unseen baguette by its length and stacked it with meat and cheese in a linguistic charade.

“Which meat? Which cheese?” the shopkeeper asked, nothing assumed.

“This chicken here…” my finger smudged the cold glass of the vitrine.

“Bene! Which cheese then?”

“That one, the smoked provolone, please,” I smiled.

The shopkeeper’s hand hesitated as it hovered over the several cheeses. He looked up at me with a serious face.

“No. You don’t want that one,” he frowned and wagged his finger at me from inside the cooler.

“I don’t?”

“No. You want this one!” His palm lovingly displayed heaven’s gift to sliced chicken.

“I do?”

Deli

I felt a gentle hand on my left sleeve. I paused and looked curiously at the old woman now solemnly holding my forearm, telling me to stop talking. She was there with her daughter, who looked older than her.

“No Italiano?” she scowled at me as she shook her head in pity.

“No, I am not Italian.” I answered.

“Americano?”

“Si, Americano.” I smiled.

“Not that cheese with that chicken,” she scowled again.

As I waited for the butcher to prepare my sandwiches, the village gathered around, leaning in, to ask questions of the lost tourist.

“Why are you in our town. Why would you stop in our town? Why sleep here?”

“I am walking to Palazzolo.”

“In those shoes?” Her open palms ridiculed my exposed toes.

“My boots needed to breathe.”

“Of course, his boots need to breathe.” She clarified to the others, turning her shoulders and neck a quarter turn in each direction glancing behind her.

Grassy Road

“Where did you walk from today?”

“From Siracusa.”

“From Siracusa? In one day?” Her index finger was in my face, “One day?”

“Si, uno giorno. That’s what I said.”

The gaggle of ladies let out a collective gasp and stood up straight.

“I have a sister in America,” the older looking daughter said.

“Where is she?”

“In South Carolina.”

“..And I speak with my daughter every week in America.”

“And where does she live?” I wondered if everybody in the village had a relative in America.

“In South Carolina of course. Are you deaf?” showing me the back of her hand.

“She is my mother,” the older looking one said pointing empathically to the other with both hands.

“Of course she is. Excuse me.”

Canicatinni at Night

“It is ready,” the butcher pulled me from the deeping quicksand of a conversation I had become entangled in.

“May I also have some sun dried pomodori on the sandwich?” I asked pointing to the diced tomatoes in a vat of translucent olive oil.

Three voices, simultaneously cried out in horror, “No!”

“Why not?”

“Mami mia!”

“I put them in a little cup, like this…,” the butcher negotiated the peace.

The old ladies clucked and picked in a circle behind my back about the audacity of dried tomatoes on chicken. Their involvement in my dinner choice was uncomfortably participatory.

With the tomatoes safely sealed in cup to avoid taste contagion, I asked for a bag to carry the groceries in. Bowed heads shook again and looked at the floor with such sincere disappointment. I couldn’t win. I paid with a bank note that seemed oversized. The change in my hand spilled over on to the countertop.

As I turned to leave, I avoided eye contact with the agents of the Sicilian food police waiting behind me. I dreaded their stares, but to my surprise they had moved on, engrossed by a new scandal. Mother and daughter were telling a story, and not paying any more attention to me nor the butcher…who didn’t interrupt. How could he with everybody talking at once?

Night AlleyIn near perfect hand, body and face coordination the duo told of the mis-adventures of the grandson in America. With each rise of intonation in the mother’s voice, all four of their hands rose to both of their faces. As the suspense broke or a punchline was sprung, they spread their arms and turned their palms up and smiled with delight. As grandmother told the little tyke not to repeat his dangerous antics, backs of hands slapped open palms, twice.

I bid them all good night and waved, “Ciao!”

A chorus of voices sang in unison, “Ciao!” My insolence quickly forgotten.

I paused on the sidewalk under a street lamp to write all this down before any of the details evaporated from my memory. I greeted each of the ladies again as they exited the shop headed for home, nodding. “Ciao, Ciao, Ciao” was heard halfway up the dark hill, greeting me, greeting others, saying good night.

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8 thoughts on “Learning to Eat Like an Italian

  1. Your illustrated vignette made me smile. Thanks for a romantic glimpse of getting lost in a wayside Italian village!

    1. Does it make you want to get out and see it for yourself? I hope the story inspires you to be open to fun new experiences. Thanks for reading!

    1. Happy to have made you laugh! These types of interactions with the locals in different places are worth their weight in gold. Gives real perspective on a place.

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