Lunches are quiet at Via Scapardini 9. Father. Mother. Son. And me, the fiancée from Toronto. We eat in the kitchen with the ticking of the clock, sometimes an Italian soap opera. We all have our places around the table. Mine is beside the radiator with my back to the television. I face an armoire bursting with all manner of pot and platter, and kitchen appliances stored in their original boxes. I face my future mother-in-law.
I’ve learned many things at my place beside the radiator. I’ve learned that no matter how full I am I should always ask for seconds. If I don’t, they’ll arrive on my plate anyway and everyone is much happier if I ask for them first. “A good appetite!” the father will exclaim and beam in the direction of his son. I’ve learned that bread sits directly on the tablecloth, that fruit is presented chilled and covered with droplets, that grapes are to be broken off in bunches, and oranges peeled with a knife. I’ve learned that cheese from Sicily, the region my fiancé’s family is originally from, is always best. “Sometimes Sardegna,” the father may say if he’s feeling gracious.
I’ve learned that even though I don’t normally drink coffee, I should drink one when all is said and done. I should down the thick, black espresso served in a tiny cup like a shooter. “It helps digestion,” the mother proclaims, stacking the cups the moment the last dregs are drunk. It’s time to do the dishes. This is my cue to select a tea towel from the drawer. “No, not that one,” the mother will inevitably say as she fills the sink with soapy water. There are certain towels, I’ve learned, for certain tasks. Although, in my opinion, they all look exactly the same.
While I wait with the proper towel in hand and a mind buzzing with caffeine, the father prepares the leftovers for distribution to Briccola, the family dog, and the flock of chickens. Nothing is wasted at Via Scapardini 9. Every fruit peel is minutely diced. Every cheese rind slivered. The father sits at the table while doing all this, big hands grasping a tiny pen-knife reserved just for this task. Leftover pasta is thrown into Briccola’s saucepan, topped with all the scrapings from our plates, and sprinkled with fresh parmesan grated from a block half the size of my head.
When the father is finished, his son removes the tablecloth and carries it to the garden to shake out the crumbs. If I still don’t have a dish to dry, I go out too. I turn my face towards a sun that always seems to be shining in this country. I watch my fiancé, knowing this has been his chore for thirty-one years. The tablecloth flies into the air and snaps expertly. Crumbs settle gently on basil and arugula. He looks at me while folding the cloth into a perfect square. If no one is around, I clasp his hands where the corners meet and kiss him.
This is Sunday Lunch. It took me awhile not to feel nervous every time my fiancé and I rounded the bend of our street, Via Cairoli, and faced the statue of the Madonna rising into the blue sky. Her white marble form rising from the pinnacle of a pink-stuccoed church marks the entranceway to Via Scapardini. On a really clear day, the Alps backdrop her out- stretched arms. Every time I round that bend I’m reminded of two things: first, that Italy is beautiful; and second, that I am not Italian. I am a straniera, a stranger, a foreigner in the polite sense of the word.
This fact becomes evident every Sunday Lunch. I don’t speak more than a few hundred words of the language, and these are mostly limited to what I see on my plate. I don’t wear pointy boots with heels. I don’t know the names of the characters on Vivere.
My fiancé assures me that none of this is important; his parents don’t care about such things. But I know he’s just being polite. Of course they care; they’re Italian. To make matters worse, they’re Sicilian. They’re from an island where traditionally la famiglia is something worth killing for. And my fiancé is their youngest. The one they’ve been so patient with. The one they let study jazz in Boston, work as a musician on cruise ships, volunteer at a Buddhist retreat centre in India. He’s their last chance for a four-hundred guest wedding. For grandchildren.
I’ve caught his mother examining my boots on the mat at the front door, scraping the toe with her pinkie nail to test if they’re real leather. She has pulled me aside examining the frayed stitching of a shirt collar, insisting I change while she mended it. She clucks when I walk barefoot through the garden. She sighs when I let Briccola jump onto my lap, speckling my jeans with tiny paw-prints.
I know they wonder why their son would ever choose to bring home a pale-faced, scrawny, strawberry blonde with no fashion sense who has never eaten a fresh artichoke before. Sometimes, I wonder exactly the same thing. The longer I live in this place, I too wish I was more Italian. Who wouldn’t? They live amidst carved cornices, soaring archways, and white marble staircases. They grow things like persimmons and passionfruit. They greet one another with kisses on both cheeks and words that sound like libretti. Mothers push baby strollers wearing stiletto heels. Every afternoon they close everything down for three hours to eat a four-course lunch and take naps. And every week, after Sunday Lunch, families walk arm-in-arm through the piazza beneath frescoes painted during the Renaissance.
But I’ve learned that my fiancé’s family doesn’t go to the piazza. We sit back down at our places around the table and do what I dread most − talk. They ask questions. My fiancé translates: How many brothers do you have? What do they do? What does your father do? What does your family grow in their garden? My fiancé tries to find the words for nuclear power plant and car manufacturing industry. Retired school principal and mega-box chain store. “They don’t have a garden?” the father asks, puzzled, looking at my fiancé. I nod, as saddened as he by this discovery. Soon they begin to look at me with pity rather than dis- may. We down another round of espressos. We crack open walnuts and pop them into out mouths.
After a few weeks, when my vocabulary begins to expand beyond the borders of my plate, I ask them a question: Why did they leave Sicily? I’ve noticed that although they’ve lived in the North for almost thirty years, far from African breezes and lemon trees, Sicily is still home. Via Scapardini 9 is filled with all things Sicilian: sheep’s ricotta, cannoli biscuits, olive oil, pistachios, a thick sweet wine reserved for special occasions. The wine is kept on a side rack in the fridge. It’s unlabelled.
“Don’t drink it,” my fiancé warned the first time a small glass of it was presented to me on All Saints’ Day. But, of course I’d learned it was best to accept whatever was placed in front of me. “Salute!” I said and took a sip. It tasted heavenly. “Ambrosia of the gods,” I attempted to say while they all looked at me confused. “It’s really strong,” my fiancé warned again as I took another sip. And it was. It made my head buzz in a way espresso could never dream of. The father smiled. I smiled back. We understood one another then. I understood I was tasting where he came from. The essence of the place. The sweetness of sun, sea, wind, soil. I tasted what ran through his veins, what the North could never replace.
“Why did you leave?” I ask again. The mother opens up the drawer where the tea towels are kept and unfolds a square of white linen printed with a map of Sicily, the kind of tea towel tourists buy as keepsakes. It’s illustrated with orange blossoms, dancing peasant girls, Grecian urns. She points to a dot nestled in green hills, a centimetre away from the Mediterranean Sea. “Boom!” she says. “Boom!” she says again. “There was an earth- quake,” my fiancé translates. “They lost everything. They had to move North where there was work.”
The mother rushes into the dining room and returns with a vase that before I moved to Italy I would have considered tacky. It’s curvy and ornate, hand-painted with the scene of a cypress and a white-washed villa. The sky is pink. The glaze, a pearly opalescence. The mother holds the vase aloft by its golden handles. “Real gold,” she proclaims and the father nods his head. “It’s all that survived,” she says. I look at the vase as the light shifts and everything – sky, cypress, villa – begins to shimmer. I look at all those years pre- served beneath the glaze.
“Take it,” the mother says placing the vase in front of me and for the first time I refuse something I’m offered at Via Scapardini 9. “Take it,” she says again, looking at me, not at my clothing or shoes or hairstyle. And I look at her too. Something in her eyes tells me I’ve been wrong all this time – I’ve been family from the moment I took my seat beside the radiator even though I’m a straniera. I’ve been family not because I’m engaged to her son, but because this is Italy. This is Sunday Lunch. “Thank you,” I say touching the golden handles.
Angela Long lives in a log cabin on Haida Gwaii or the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the BC coast, with her husband Giuseppe, and Penelope the cat. She has recently published her debut poetry collection, Observations from Off the Grid.
“This Is Sunday Lunch” won Third Prize in the fourth annual Accenti Magazine Writing Contest and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the 11th Blue Met Festival in April 2009.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 18.