So, you already know that I am in love with Italy, but I have yet to tell you how and why. I have yet to tell you my love story: How girl met Italy, how Italy swooned girl.
It probably all started when I was old enough to realize that my Nana was Italian. To this day, she will tell me about the time I wrote about her in one of my 4th grade essays. I said: “My Nana isn’t like most grandmas. She doesn’t bake cookies… the only thing she cooks is pasta and sauce!”. And it’s true. Nana isn’t like most other grandmothers. She never spoiled us when my sister and I were little and punishment was always a possibility with her. You said one thing that rubbed her the wrong way and before you knew it, she’d be running you out of that kitchen with her wooden spoon in hand, ready to whoop your behind if you didn’t apologize.
But oh, her homemade red sauce is divine! Once all of my mother’s friends started trying it, they begged for it. It became a ritual for Nana to give away her sauce at all the Christmas gift exchanges and trust me, it was one of the most coveted presents to unwrap. Funny thing was, I didn’t even start to eat her sauce until I was probably about 10. I was too picky of an eater.
I think it was around the time that I started to eat pasta with Nan’s red sauce that I started getting curious about where Nana came from…why she was so different from all the other grandma’s out there. She would tell me about her father (she called him Daddy) and mother who came from Italy, Sicily to be precise. I will never forget the first time she told me that they were cousins, FIRST cousins. Of course, I thought that was real strange, but she explained that back then it was normal. They wanted to keep things in the family I suppose. She said Daddy came over from Sicily with his father and they opened up a shoe business. Then a few years later, he went back to Sicily to finish up some paperwork and when he returned, he had a wife. Just like that. Niccolò Sciarrotta and Mariastella Giambrone from Casteltermini, Sicily.
As the years went on, I would always forget the exact details of our family history. Every once in a while, I would get curious again. I’d come home from school, sit at the kitchen table with Nan while she watched her favorite game shows on the TV, and I would ask her things like “What was the name of my great-grandpa? Where were they from? What did they do when they moved to America?”. But one day, sometime in when I was in high school, I realized that Nana wasn’t going to be around forever to answer my questions. So I went upstairs, got a pencil and piece of paper and decided I was going to sit down at the kitchen table once and for all and ask her to explain our family tree. It got real complicated real quick, with crazy stepmothers and adopted cousins and of course, cousins marrying cousins. But I didn’t care, I thought it was the most beautiful family tree I had ever seen.
I also made Nan give me her sauce recipe, since I figured I’d need that too once Nan was gone. When I asked her to write it down for me, she looked me straight in the eye and said “There isn’t a recipe. I’m just going to have to show you and you can write it down as we go”. So that’s what we did. We spent an afternoon in the kitchen with our old t-shirts on (“pasta shirts”, Nan called them, just in case some red sauce splattered up out of the pot) and wooden spoons in hand. Nan showed me how to slice the onions just right, how to mix the tomato paste with the water first (something, she said, my Mom never did when she made sauce) and how to let it sit. For hours. “Sauce is best when it sits overnight”, she said, which was torture because it filled the house with a wonderful smell and all you wanted to do was eat right then and there, but you couldn’t. You had to stick that big ‘ole pot in the fridge and wait until the next day before you could even touch it. It was miserable.
A few years later, I was entering college. I showed up the day of orientation with absolutely no clue of what I wanted to major in, let alone which classes I wanted to take. Little did I know that we had to sign up for classes that day and the only advice they gave us was to just take whichever classes sounded interesting. So, I stared at the long list of courses available to freshman and sure enough, the only one that really struck my eye was Italian. I had never taken Italian before in my life and the only words I knew were probably “ciao”, “mangia”, and “dinda”, the last one not even being a real Italian word, just some made up Sicilian term that Nan always used when she was scolding us. But I had done really well in Spanish in high school, so I figured it couldn’t be that different.
The first day of Italian class was easy. It was like learning all the basics of Spanish all over again, except a few vowels that changed here and there. My Italian professor would always tell stories which made class interesting. He would often go off on tangents about Italian culture and life, which I thought was more valuable than just sitting there repeating words in Italian. I liked his stories, so when second semester rolled around, the first course on my registration list was Elementary Italian II.
The more I learned, the more I fell in love with Italy and its beautiful language. I would write letters to Nan in Italian just so I could practice. The first time I wrote to her, I was so afraid I was going to mess up and that she wouldn’t understand what I was saying. I stuck to the basic phrases like “How are you?” and “It’s cold here”, looking up every word in the dictionary until I was sure it was right. I felt much better when she wrote me back telling me that she couldn’t remember much either, that it was hard for her to write in Italian too. Still, we kept at it and wrote to each other in Italian for all four years that I was away at college. It was like our own secret code.
Somewhere in between the beginning of Elementary Italian II and the end, I met a boy. We didn’t know each other before this class, but I remember he would sit across the room from me and laugh out loud at all the quirky Italian things our Italian Professor would say. One day a friend asked me if I knew him, but of course I didn’t know who she was talking about because I didn’t know his name. It was only until she described what he looked like and mentioned that he was in my Italian class that I could picture him. Apparently that tall, gangly, laugh-out-loud boy had a crush on me and I hadn’t even met him before. I didn’t think he was my type so I just laughed when she told me that, but then he started talking to me after class, asking me about assignments. Before I knew it, he was showing up in the cafeteria, plopping himself across from me at a table that I was sitting at by myself, studying. What was I supposed to do? Being the real nice girl I was, I made conversation with him. Spring turned into summer and we just kept talking, and soon enough he was sending me messages written in Italian. “Another secret code”, I thought. That’s when I knew I liked this tall, gangly, laugh-out-loud boy because he liked what I liked. Not to mention he was Italian too.
Junior year of college everyone studies abroad. It’s just the thing to do nowadays. So when I found out that it was possible for me to spend 4 months away in a foreign country, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to Italy. I feel a bit conceited saying this, but I knew that going to Italy wasn’t the same for everyone else as it was for me. I wasn’t going to Italy just to get drunk on cheap wine and eat great food (although that was a perk). No, I was going to Italy to love. This was essential to my life and I felt like I would die without it. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t fully aware of this before I went, but let me tell you, when I stepped foot off that plane and felt the warm Tuscan sun on my face and arms, I knew this was love. Seeing
Italy for the first time was like I was a kid walking into FAO Schwarz for the first time. I was too googly-eyed and rushed up on adrenaline to even care that the Florence airport lost my luggage. I was in Italy and I felt loved.
Some days I would just walk around Florence by myself, going in and out of shops, trying to speak Italian with the various vendors and shopkeepers (very poorly I might add, they always knew I was American and I hated it). I wanted to be an Italian. I wanted to dress like them, talk like them, love the things that they loved. Despite my all-too American clothes and poor Italian accent, one thing I did manage to do very well was eat like an Italian. Every morning I made coffee in my stovetop Bialetti percolator. I ate a small breakfast, if any at all. Panini and pizza became my favorite lunches and I never dared to order a cappuccino past eleven in the morning (mostly because I didn’t want to get laughed at, not because I didn’t crave one). My friends and I started doing “Aperitivo” style dinners, with a hodgepodge of appetizers and lots of different wines, including one called “Frizzantino”, a bubbly wine that was basically a spoof on Prosecco.
I even mastered shopping in the Italian grocery store, quickly learning to only purchase enough for the day, not for the week. I knew exactly what to say when it was my turn to go through the check-out line: “No, I do not want to use plastic bags, I brought my own reusable ones, grazie, and yes, I already weighed out my pomodori and placed a price sticker on them”. I knew that Grana Padano cheese was the perfect substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano (and half the price) and that bread is only worth buying if made fresh that day. I enjoyed shopping for food almost as much as I enjoyed eating it and I never felt guilty for buying something that I didn’t really need, just so I could taste it, or for eating that extra bite of Pizza Margherita, as if it was the last thing I was ever going to eat. I was in love, and everything about food and Italy was absolutely irresistible to me.
Leaving Italy was another story. My last look at the Duomo was by myself at 6 o’clock in the morning out the back window of a cab. “Ciao Italia”, I said to myself. I would have cried the whole way home had I not been too tired and focused on getting to where I needed to be on time. I felt like I had just gone through a very bad break-up. “Reverse culture chock” they called it, “should only last 3-6 months”. But it didn’t. It’s been a year and half since I last saw Italy, and I still miss her as much as I did the day I left.
And that is my love story. How girl met Italy, how Italy swooned girl.