It’s the night before Friday.
I don’t have class tomorrow, and hope swims in my heart like that of a small child who finds out there is a snow day, school is cancelled, and they will have three days of play. The numbing quality of the stressful week weighs me down, as though I was eating a pepper so hot that my taste buds couldn’t handle it, and then suddenly I could taste nothing. Many people start to suffer from this numbness by Wednesday, and on Thursday nights, they often step into the streets with drinks, other people, and the moon. They come to have fun, to discover another person looking for an adventure, or just to chat before their next meal or sleep. In Parma, Italy, there is one beautiful element to Thursday nights which excites people like myself beyond all the rest.
This magical event occurs during Italy’s happy hour. In America, everyone knows it must be five o’clock somewhere. I learned this by the age I was six, listening to Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet singing through the speakers on our deck while my Dad was on the grill. The smoke of Bubba burgers dancing in the air was just as important to the song of summer as was Buffet’s melodious voice. I reflected that Jackson and Buffet had a good point, it is always five o’clock somewhere.
I don’t know if I realized at age six that the phrase serves to reassure Americans they can drink at whatever time they like and they don’t have to feel bad about it. If I grew up in Italy, I’m not sure I would have learned the phrase at all. Italians normally eat dinner around nine o’clock at night. Happy hour starts two hours prior: it’s seven o’clock somewhere.
So here I am on a Thursday night, sitting outside next to a lamp heater with an aesthetically pleasing fire grumbling inside. I can sense that there is food coming. I toss my black-and-white scarf over my mouth to help with the task of staying warm, my eyes sparkling with the reflection of fire as they shift to watch others. People walk past me on Via Farina, most likely on their way to find their own lamp heater outside a restaurant or bar serving aperitivo. My eyes diverge when I spy my waiter walking out the door, slowly carrying his tray like a wealthy man deciding who he should throw his money at next. My stomach does cartwheels in excitement once he arrives at my side. He announces two Tuscan wines and one Aperol Spritz. His bountiful treats have arrived, and I feel rich.
Italians, like Americans, have certain customs. Americans, however, are a mix of many breeds. Italian customs are a bit older, often more particular, and I enjoy partaking in them very much. This way I can pretend to live another life in another place, although when my body sleeps in a house with an Italian family, and my tastebuds delight in Italian cuisine everyday, I don’t know how much “pretending” is really done.
In order to experience the Italian aperitivo, I had no choice but to order the Aperol Spritz or red wine. My mouth pleaded for something sweet, so I ordered the Aperol Spritz. Aside from the fact that it would’ve been rude not to order the Italian cocktail, I wouldn’t receive any complimentary food if I did not select a drink. As an Aperol Spritz is usually around five euros in Italy, and the right restaurant or bar will serve cheesy focaccia bread as part of aperitivo, this order is as obvious as a Wendy’s vanilla frosty and fries in America.
“Grazie,” I say to the waiter, as he places all of the glasses on the table. I take a sip of the fizzy drink. The bubbles swing around my mouth like a hammock in soft wind.
Aperol Spritz is a warm sunset descending over the Bay of Naples. You watch the orange light while you sit perched on your balcony atop the cliffs of Sorrento. The prosecco, aperol, and splash of soda water mirror the symphony of the tangerine rays reflecting on the bay. The boats in the marina slowly and carefully cut through the song. Using my straw I fish my orange slice out of the bay of bubbles. I suck on the fruit of Sicilia. It is bittersweet, bitter from the Aperol, and stained slightly red from the liquor. Still, its sweetness is stronger. Oranges are in season in February.
My Thursday night improves when the waiter brings the food. He holds a basket containing several delicacies. The centerpiece is cheesy focaccia bread, topped with small green balls of juice. People are very particular about their affection (or lack thereof) for this sweet, acrid, and salty fruit. I find them to be a delicacy, and even better in Italy, where many people grow the species of small tree themselves. The olive oil in this country is unprecedented.
Surrounding the main features are sweet-and-salty peanuts, crunchy dried corn, spicy dried corn, more olives, potato chips, and tortilla chips. Just a reminder, this is what Italians eat before dinner. As a college student, a girl who loves eating appetizers for a meal on a budget, and someone whose mother serves dinner at 6:30 pm, aperitivo satisfies my meal. Yet for Italians, aperitivo is so much more than the sweetness of a beverage, or the saltiness of food. Aperitivo is play, sharing time with friends under the carolling moon on Via Farina. It is the joy of a child on a snow day.
Watching Italians around me walking, eating, and drinking is admiring the snowmen other children have made. Getting warm by the lamp heater is putting your hands by the fire as you wait for your mom to arrive with the s’mores materials. Biting into the stretchy, cripsy, and salty olive focaccia is the symphony of bells in the air pulled by magical reindeers. Sucking on your straw to be blasted with the cool, fizzy drink of warm orange sunsets is like riding your sled down the snow-covered hills of your hometown. The wind chills your lips, and when you laugh your mouth opens and is filled with the taste of happiness. It doesn’t matter if the happiness is warm or cold on your throat. The sheer feeling of it in your heart, your friend laughing behind you on a sled or next to you at the table on Via Farina, warms you up long after you reach the bottom of the hill or the sun fades away on the Bay of Naples.
I flag down the waiter and order another Aperol Spritz. The air gets colder, but more neighbors come out as the moon brightens up. My heart warms up while I play.