Learning to Eat Like an Italian
As I prepared to write my second novel, set partially in Italy, I travelled to Sicily. My intent was to listen to Italians “speak” Italian with everything but their voices. I don’t speak enough Italian to shake a stick at, so I observed carefully.
I could have watched movies or Googled different aspects of Italy. But there is no substitute for being present and alert in places and settings one wishes to use in a story. The fine details discerned by being on location gives a story credibility that makes it difficult for the reader to turn away from.
For the first leg of my trip, I spent three days in the ancient port city of Siracusa. Then, I walked out of town with my backpack and a vague idea 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 of the ancient town of Palazzolo Acreide, I overnighted in a one-horse village—a real workers’ town that seemed honored by the visit of a lost tourist.
Years of exploring the back roads in Europe has taught me that it is in these non-descript towns, void of any tourist attraction, where the true culture of a country is preserved, Here, people aren’t too busy to speak with each other. History is retold and traditions linger. But being in a small town does have its drawbacks when it comes to convenience.
With no restaurant open on Wednesday nights, and the grocers all closed at seven o’clock, I shuffled to the corner delicatessen in my flip-flops as fast as I could before it too closed. 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 Canacatinni Bagni insisted that I 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.
Italians are legendary for using their hands, and faces, their arms and shoulders when speaking with one another. In the airport in Rome, I watched an irate man yelling at his mobile phone held out in front of him in his right hand, his left hand concurring with and punctuating his arguments. Learning to speak Italian is just as much about motion and posture as it is vocabulary and conjugations.
“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, his eyes brows forming questions marks on his bald forehead.
“This chicken here.” My finger smudged the cold glass of the vitrine.
“Bene! Which cheese then?” he asked, nothing assumed.
“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.
“No. You want this one!” His palm lovingly displayed heaven’s gift to sliced chicken.
A gentle hand rested 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.
“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 grandmothers gathered around and leaned in to hear the story of the lost foreigner.
“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.
“Where did you walk from today?”
“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,” the older lady said.
“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?” she said, 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.”
“It is ready!” The butcher pulled me from the deepening 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!”
“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 a cup to avoid taste contagion, I asked for a bag in which to carry the groceries. 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 onto 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?
In 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 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 streetlamp 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, with more than just their voices.
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