“Excuse me . . . miss.”
The way he addressed me, I almost thought he mistook me for a clerk. The blue and white check on the shoulder of my rain jacket flashed as I turned and reminded me it looked nothing like the blue polos of the store employees. He spread his fingers across the bridge of his nose.
“My glasses. I forgot them.” His index finger moved to the half gallon of milk he held in his hand and its mottled hieroglyph of a date stamp. We peered at it together.
“March 26th,” I said.
“Today’s . . . the . . . 11th,” we said together, the last part punctuated by the speed of certainty.
He tilted his head back and forth as if weighing the amount of milk against the weight of days.
“That gives you time,” I said.
I’d seen the same dance from my grandmother countless times. What was an easy decision for me – to throw two full gallons of milk in my cart for my burgeoning family – was agonizing to a single person afraid of pouring sour dairy down the drain.
We laughed, relieved to have solved this problem together.
“Eh, the basket, where do you get them?” he said. At least that’s what I thought he said. The beautiful lilt of an Italian accent rounded the edges of each word. I went through the convoluted description of obtaining a shopping cart from the coin-fed chain contraption all because of one misunderstood noun.
“Oh no, the pasta. Pasta fagioli?” He uttered a few other phrases to clarify what he was seeking, which included Germany in there somewhere, I think. I finally nodded in assent and scanned the signs above the aisles, pointing to the next one over.
“Pasta!” I said.
“Next aisle, ah yes. Thank you very much.”
After he shuffled off and I resumed the task of picking out paper towels, his voice carried over the rack of metal shelving separating us.
“Pastina,” he said. “Pasta. Pasta fagioli.”
“Pastina? You mean little pasta?”
“For pasta fagioli,” he insisted. “In Germany.”
“This is all the pasta we have, sir.”
He had found a clerk this time, but I could tell she was as thrown by his accent as I had been. And obviously hadn’t been raised on the tiny bits of pasta Italian families added to their soups and fed buttered to their babies in high chairs.
Armed with the knowledge my Italian husband and his family had fed me with, I figured I’d better hightail it over to the pasta aisle and intervene. I’d failed translating the first time, but maybe this time, I could help. Plus, I needed some campanelle of my own.
“Pasta fagioli,” he said again to the confounded clerk.
They both looked at me as I approached. “You mean in a can?”
My Italian relatives would cringe at my suggestion, but the way he kept repeating it, I thought maybe he wanted some ready-made.
“No, no, the pastina, to put in the pasta fagioli.” His thumb and forefinger made a small gap of light to show its size.
I had assumed that’s what he had wanted all along. Even though he was elderly and shopping alone, living perhaps presumably alone, a man who requested his type of pasta by the Italian name of the dish it was destined for, in a voice tinged with his mother tongue, would want to whip up a batch himself.
The clerk repeated that what was in the aisle was all they had. I agreed that I didn’t see it, nor the ditalini I instinctively knew would also work.
“Sorry,” she said as she moved back to the front of the store.
“Are you Italian?” he said.
“My husband is,” I said.
“Your husband,” he repeated as if processing the information.
“What is your last name?”
I’d had this conversation many times before in supermarkets, nursing homes, and once a cab ride in Rome. It was not an interrogation. It was a sharing of roots; whether common ones or airing your own; a sense of pride; a tradition borne across the world.
He was not the first one to stumble on my last name, but his was not due to pronunciation. Once his hearing clarified it, he pronounced it more precisely than I could.
“Calabria, Campagnia, Sicily?”
I knew, of course, where the maternal and paternal shoots of my husband’s tree hailed from, but struggled to find the short answer in the middle of the supermarket.
“Rome.” I decided on the branch that bore our surname.
“Si,” I said.
“And you, you are American?”
I shouldn’t have been thrown by such a question, especially coming from someone who certainly did not sound like a native English speaker. Yes, I was American, but my family had been for three generations now – and that was the most recent immigrant branch.
“Yes, Jennifer. My family is Irish,” I said.
“The Irish,” he said.
My genetics must have been ingrained with the biases my ancestors dealt with, for I was almost afraid how he would react. I wanted to assure him with my grandmother’s assurance made just fifteen short years ago, that Irish and Italians marry well.
“My daughters,” he said. “I have two. One she lives upstairs from me. The other, she lives in New York. She married an Irish man. Kevin O’Rourke. He’s a good man,” he said. “Even though, you know.” He paused to make a guzzling motion with his thumb and pinky extended, then laughed. I couldn’t tell whether this was an indictment of his son-in-law or the Irish in general.
“Well, I don’t,” I said. “Especially now,” I quipped, indicating my pregnant belly.
He smiled. “A boy?” I couldn’t tell whether he was rooting for a boy as any Italian relative I’d encountered during any of my pregnancies did, or if he was just wondering whether I knew the sex of the baby.
“I don’t know, yet,” I said. “We already have three daughters.”
He indicated pleasure rather than the surprise that admission usually met.
“And what is your name?’ I asked.
He extended a strong hand spotted with age. “Pietro.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Pietro.”
“Yes, you have a good day now,” he said. “Good bye, ciao, auf wiedersehen.“
His litany of multilingual greetings threw my mind into a tailspin. It spun wildly for the words to wish him a good day in Italian.
Perhaps he mistook my pause for confusion, for he explained ‘auf wiedersehen’ was from the German. I realized I’d never asked exactly from where he’d hailed. He was obviously tied to Germany as well as Italy.
“Si,“ I agreed.
He laughed. “Ciao, bella.“
As he left, I turned back to the pasta. Not only did they not have pastina, there was no campanelle either.
– Jennifer Butler Basile, 2016
Posted by Jennifer Butler Basile on March 11, 2016
The One Doing the Chopping
Writer balancing between two worlds. Fiction and memoir. Written and real. Parent vs. self. Want vs. need. My pen as my constant companion and key to comprehension.
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