Maria was my handler, or at least that’s the way I thought of her. I’d been working with her son Stefano, my lead consultant, for months to prepare for our trip. Stefano had recently moved to Rome, so now that I had arrived in Southern Italy, Maria was taking over. She was waiting for us at the airport in Napoli with Umberto, one of Stefano’s friends, who somehow managed to cram all our bags into his tiny Fiat to drive us through the rolling green hills of southern Italy to the apartment we were renting from Maria in Rionero in Vulture, the small town in the heart of the Basilicata region that would be our home for the next two months.
Before our departure, Stefano kept referring to Maria as his collaborator. It wasn’t until our last Zoom call that he had confided, “Oh Michele, you should know, Maria is my mamma, and she doesn’t speak any English.” I’m sure he read the panic on my face because he continued, “It’s not a problem because your Italian is very good.” I wasn’t sure I agreed, so before leaving home, I’d prepared a list of things to talk to her about on the drive. I wanted to sound comfortable conversing in Italian, hoping to seem more Italian and less American.
Umberto was whipping the car around on the autostrada with complete disregard for the lanes as we drove from Napoli to Rionero, and at one point he even backed up on the highway because he had missed his exit. I hadn’t driven in Italy for a few years and had forgotten what driving here was like. To distract myself, I took a deep breath and tentatively asked Maria a question in Italian. I understood the gist of her response, but our conversation felt stilted and awkward, so instead of trying to talk, I sat quietly and gazed out the window. It felt surreal that I was even here, and I reached for David’s hand. Would I be able to this?
As soon as we arrived in Rionero, we stopped at the grocery store so we could stock our apartment. I knew we would need to shop for everything from coffee and eggs to toilet paper and dish soap, so my Italian teacher had suggested I prepare a shopping list before coming. I had reviewed my list with her on one of our last lessons, listing things the way I would shop in Denver, grouping together produce, meat, and dry goods. I showed the list to Maria as we started walking up and down the aisles, thinking she’d be proud that the list was in Italian, but instead, she snatched it from my hand. “Mee-shell, you don’t need that! I’ll show you everything!” she said in very loud, rapid-fire Italian. I was exhausted from jet lag, and my brain hurt from trying so hard to speak and understand Italian, so I relented and let her lead me around the store.
The store sold prepackaged meats and cheeses like the US, but I noticed that all the Italians had pulled a number from a ticket dispenser and were waiting to order directly from the deli counter and butcher at the back of the store. Before I left Denver, I had vowed to not be a tourist on this trip. I had committed to living like an Italian, thinking it would allow me to learn more from the experience. So I pulled a ticket like the others and lined up to place my order while Maria flitted around the store chatting with people and David entertained himself by people watching.
While we waited, I kept rehearsing the words in my head for each item—prosciutto cotto, prosciutto crudo, mortadella, formaggio svizzero. I also frantically tried to do the math while I waited–one kilo is 2.2 pounds, so 1 etto is .22 pounds, so if I get 1 etto each of a few different meats, that’s going to be just under a pound. Wait, is that right?
After the deli, as we made our way up and down the aisles with Maria, I tried to recall my shopping list from memory. I added eggs, coffee, pasta, bread, tomato sauce, lettuce, and basil to my cart, but Maria corrected most of my selections, adding her choices instead. “Perché vuoi questo pacchetto di basilico?” she asked, insisting I get the live basil plant instead of the tiny package. The next day she brought over a decorative pot for me to place the basil in. It was a nice gesture that instantly made me feel more at home.
The last aisle of the store had wine and beer. I knew we were in the heart of the Aglianico wine region, but I knew nothing of this varietal despite my sommelier training. I was scanning the bottles, pulling a couple of whites I knew, like Greco di Tufo, and looking for the Aglianico when Maria pulled me by the arm to a stand in the aisle, stocked high with red table wine in one-liter plastic bottles. Maria proudly told us that her last guest loved this wine and insisted that we get a bottle to try. “Il prezzo è solo 2 euro!” she said.
David caught my eye and winked at me. He knew virtually nothing about wine, but enough to know I would never buy it in a plastic bottle for two euros. I didn’t want to seem like an American wine snob, so I let her put a bottle into the cart, thinking we’d either use it to cook or dump it. The next night I “paired” the wine with pork chops, and while it wasn’t complex and would probably never win a wine competition, it was perfectly drinkable. I made a mental note to check my American attitude.
At the grocery store at home in Denver, I always used the self-check-out lane, hating the time wasted standing in line and being just a little picky about how my purchases were loaded into my bags. But as I reached the front of the store with Maria, I saw only two lanes, both staffed, with several shoppers in line at each lane, so I joined the line and waited. When I reached the front, I realized I was expected to bring my own bags and I mentally chastised myself for forgetting them in Umberto’s car. But Maria was a step ahead of me again and had already selected some reusable shopping bags and put them on the conveyor belt for me.
In the middle of ringing up my purchases, the clerk grabbed all my produce off the belt—a head of lettuce, a few oranges and bananas, some tomatoes on the vine, and an onion—and left her cash register with my produce. I watched as she returned to the produce section of the store, put each item in its own plastic bag, tied each bag in a tight knot, weighed the items, and stuck a price sticker on each bag. I had already weighed the produce, feeling quite proud I had figured out the scale on my own, and had put a sticker directly on the produce items. What a complete waste I thought, but since I didn’t really know the reason for bagging everything, I apologized to her. “Mi dispiace.” She just shrugged her shoulders, making me feel like an ignorant American.
It wasn’t until very near to the end of our trip, when I was confident enough to discuss a topic in more detail in Italian, that I asked a young check-out clerk in one of the markets about the need for the extra plastic bags. “Non è necessario,” I said. For a country that seemed ahead of the US in terms of recycling and composting, it seemed so wasteful. She shook her head in agreement, then as an explanation, said something akin to your guess is as good as mine, but that’s just how we do it.
As I was paying the clerk, Maria told her about me—Americana, la doppia cittadinanza. The clerk eyed me up and down, I’m sure wondering why I had chosen to come to their little town for my dual citizenship. I made a note to try to connect with her later after I felt a little more confident speaking Italian. I thanked her, gathered my groceries, and walked out of the store, more than a little worried that I would ever remember all the little nuances of the simple act of grocery shopping in Italy.
After the grocery store Umberto drove us to our apartment, situated right on the main piazza in town, and together we lugged our suitcases and groceries up the three flights of stairs. Our apartment was right across the hall from Maria and her husband Michele (pronounced Mee-kay-lay, Italian for Michael), and she assured us she was right next door if we needed anything. The apartment was larger and much nicer than we had been anticipating, with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a living room with a large desk to work from. The wraparound balcony circled all the way from the back bedroom to where it connected with Maria’s balcony in the front of the apartment and offered views over the central piazza in town. The galley kitchen was tiny—no bigger than a single corner of my gourmet chef’s kitchen in Denver—yet over the next two months I found that little kitchen had everything I needed.
The next morning we met up with Maria who took us down to the main piazza in front of our apartment so she could show us around and introduce us to the town. The first stop was the macelleria, run by Tonino and Caterina. With Maria’s help, I purchased pork chops, not really understanding the cut of meat they were using. Next was the formaggeria, where I purchased some impossibly fresh ricotta produced just that day and a ball of smoked scamorza cheese from Antonietta. We stopped next at the bar, which in Italy means the coffee shop, and chatted with the owner, Francesca, while the barista Alina made a macchiato for me and an americano for David. I had already had some super strong coffee in our apartment, not understanding exactly how to use the moka, so really didn’t need more caffeine. But I wanted to fit in, and the bar was filled with Italians having a mid-morning caffè, so I downed my macchiato.
Juiced up on caffeine, we continued next door to the pescaria run by Mimo. I’d never seen such an impressive display of fresh seafood in Denver—Mimo sold everything from mussels to seabass and sea urchin, all laid out beautifully on a bed of crushed ice. I snapped a photo, excited to return for some fresh fish. When I did, a couple of weeks later, I didn’t even think to ask Mimo to gut the fish and remove the scales. While I managed to do it myself in our tiny apartment, it was a complete mess. I was certain there were still fish scales stuck to the walls and counters six weeks later when we left.
The emporio next door to the fish monger was a sort of convenience store with a little of this and a little of that. Maria explained that we should come here if we need to have copies made of any documents during my citizenship process. She introduced us to the owner, Roberto, and his son Lorenzo who was working behind the counter. She needed to purchase something—only later did I learn that she would purchase something from nearly every store we went into—and after her purchase she got into a very animated discussion with Roberto. David wandered around the store, not understanding their conversation in Italian, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping.
Maria was chastising Roberto for putting useless things like panty hose by the front door instead of the cooler full of drinks which would pull in more customers. They debated for a solid ten minutes, their voices escalating and their classic Italian hand gestures becoming increasingly more dramatic. We returned to the store for some copies the day before we were to leave Rionero and chuckled when we found the cooler right by the front door as Maria had suggested.
Our last stop was at Nunzio’s produce truck, parked in the main piazza with an impressive display of fresh vegetables and fruit spread out in boxes. I was so tired that I couldn’t even remember that lattuga meant lettuce, so I simply pointed to a few things and smiled when he handed me the bag.
We said goodbye to Maria who was deep in conversation with Nunzio—probably trying to convince him to rearrange his vegetable stand to attract more shoppers—and lugged the bags of groceries up to our apartment. As I put everything away, all I could think was how would I ever do this on my own. The metric system was confusing, and I couldn’t even remember the words for pork chop or lettuce, let alone put together a full sentence under pressure with people waiting in line.
Three days later, I left David working on his computer and ventured out to the piazza on my own. First stop, the macelleria. “Buongiorno,” I said first, knowing that Italian etiquette was to always greet a shopkeeper before asking for help.
“Giorno!” Caterina replied. Thankfully she seemed to remember me from Maria’s introduction. My palms were sweaty, and my heart was pounding. This was going to be my first attempt to communicate on my own, without Maria to run interference for me, and I wasn’t confident I could do it.
“Quattro costate di maiale, per favore,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was asking for when in fact I still didn’t really understand the cut of meat they used for pork chops. Caterina pulled a large bone-in pork loin from the case and cut four thin chops for me, even though I hadn’t specified a thickness I wanted. I knew David would be happy—he had grown up eating very thin chops and still preferred them this way. We had talked about how his mom had been challenged to feed their family of seven. Eating more rice and beans allowed them to get by with smaller portions of meat. I also knew from my prior trips to Italy that in general Italians in the south ate less meat and more vegetables, for both health and financial reasons. This was one of my early observations that the Puerto Rican culture that David had grown up in shared many similarities with the Italian culture I so loved.
As I waited, a young woman in line with a baby in a stroller said, “Complimenti,” referring to my Italian, and we chatted, in Italian, for a couple of minutes. I explained why I was in Rionero, and she asked if I liked the town. “Si! Mi piace molto, ma non per sempre,” I told her. It was an interesting small town to live in for a couple of months, but I just couldn’t see living here forever.
“Che altro?” Caterina asked.
“Niente, basta,” I responded, not needing to order anything else, and she wrapped my chops up and handed me the bill. I paid and thanked her before wishing her a good day. “Buona giornata!”
My first purchase had gone better than I had been expecting, so I ventured on to a few other shops, practicing my order for each shop in my head before I entered, hoping I wouldn’t butcher the language and embarrass myself. In less than fifteen minutes, I purchased some more ricotta from the formaggeria (the last batch was so delicious we had eaten it in a day), some sweet rolls for David from the panetteria, and a selection of vegetables from Nunzio, who charged less than five euros for a hefty bag of produce, and then threw in some extra carrots for free after I paid.
I returned to the apartment with my confidence bolstered. It had only been a short outing requiring a few words at each shop, but I had done it, entirely on my own. I couldn’t stop smiling as I put the food away and sat down to enjoy my first mortadella sandwich, which somehow tasted so much better than a baloney sandwich at home.