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Essays

Grocery Stores in Other Places

I wasn’t hungry, but I wasn’t going to let the opportunity to do my favorite thing abroad pass me by. I walked into the grocery store.

By “grocery store” I don’t mean Starmarket or Shoprite; those don’t exist here in Parma, Italy. The biggest supermarket near me is called Conads, and it’s a fraction of the size of the average American supermarket. Furthermore, there’s no need to go there for fresh produce or even meat. My Italian host parents explained to me that the food in the small local produce and meat shops are fresher and more flavorful than that of the supermarket. 

I love exploring food stores and shops in other countries, because you can better understand the culture this way. Most places outside America don’t have huge supermarkets with every imaginable item; instead, the food available is grown nearby, and in turn is cooked into long standing traditional dishes. 

The shop I entered held juicy grapes, sweet oranges, crunchy apples, and yellowing bananas. There was fennel, onion, cabbage, and the most delicious tomatoes. Most of the fresh produce was from Sicilia. A few types of pasta lined the shelves, accompanied by sauces suggesting potential partnership. Nuts that I didn’t recognize sat in wooden barrels, not because they were completely unfamiliar but because they were unshelled. Italians do the cracking themselves. 

“Ciao!” The shop owner said to me. I tried my best not to seem American. I wanted to practice my Italian.

“Ciao!” I responded. He asked me if I was looking for anything, where I was from, and what I was doing there. It became pretty obvious I wasn’t Italian when I struggled to respond. It turned out it didn’t matter, because he didn’t speak English anyway. My quest to become fluent continued.

I didn’t want to buy anything in the store, but after our conversation he sent me home with a kiwi, an apple, and a banana free of charge. I told him I didn’t need a banana, and I wasn’t kidding. When my host mother asked me what I usually eat for breakfast, I said during the week I’ll usually have a banana. She returned the next day with fifteen bananas. I tried my best to eat them all, but to no avail. With nine very ripe bananas, I knew what had to be done. 

I made banana bread. 

My host family had never heard of banana bread or “pane di banana” (which literally translates to bread of banana). I overbaked it but my host mother said it wasn’t overdone. Apparently Italians like their bread a bit more crunchy. While I prefer my banana bread “morbido,” meaning moist, I do greatly enjoy the crunch of one famous Italian item.

In the small grocery shop, there weren’t just vegetables and fruit, nuts and pasta. There was also a shelf of Italian snacks, called taralli. The shop owner explained that a fresh shipment had arrived that day. 

“Non da una fabbrica,” He said. I knew this much Italian; it was not made in a factory. The taralli here was handmade. 

There were different flavored taralli, which he described by pointing to various items in the small store. There was olive oil, red pepper, onion, and garlic. I asked what the best one was, and he said they were all amazing but you have to be careful because it is easy to get “grasso” eating them all day, using his hand to gesture toward himself. Grasso means “fat” in Italian. In the end I couldn’t decide, but he already had a bag of taralli open. Before leaving the store, he gave me one along with my paper baggie of fruit. 

“Taralli alla cipolla,” He explained. He raised his hand and pointed toward onions sitting casually in a wooden box. Grabbing his gift, I took a bite.

My teeth munched down on the circular stick of water, flour, and yeast. Yet it would be a shame to describe it so simply. The olive oil allowed for an almost buttery sensation, the crunchy treat easily dissolving into my mouth with a sweet, oniony taste. Maybe it wasn’t dissolving so much as I was eating each bite with unparalleled agility. I wanted more. As a college student on a budget, with plenty of food at home and scared of getting fat (I could have easily eaten the whole bag) I left the store. 

I saw a bag on the shelf of the supermarket a few days later, labeled “taralli integrale,” or whole wheat taralli. I was happy but skeptical. Was it possible? Could I eat more taralli and not get grasso? I took my chances; I bought the bag. Then I took a bite.

I could not taste the onion, because it was lacking. I could not taste the sweet olive oil, because the whole wheat overpowered the flavor. However, what turned me off the most was the texture; it did not melt in my mouth. With each bite the mixture of flour and yeast seemed not to disintegrate but to break down into smaller particles, creating a dusty feeling between my teeth. Disappointment encompassed me.

On my walk home today I passed the same little grocery, where I waved to the nice man who had given me fruit for no charge. He called me inside, where we conversed in Italian, which was slightly improving on my part. He packed me three clementines, for which I felt like it would be wrong not to buy something. I knew what I wanted. I figured it was OK to be a little grasso.

At home I sat eating my taralli alla cipolla, savoring each bite. For dessert I finished off the banana bread. 

Italy has a lot of very good food. Not only cooked dishes, but fruits and vegetables with more flavor than I thought they could ever have. If you travel to another country, please, do it right. Walk into a grocery store. You don’t have to examine everything, but look around. If a vegetable or fruit starts singing to you, focus your eyes and answer the song; ask the price. Talk to the local shop owners, they’ll point you in the right direction. 

If you’re reading this, you’re a person who appreciates delicious food. Be adventurous. Try something different and unique to where you are. Of course, you’ll bring your own culture too. Slowly, we can show the whole world the greatness of banana bread. And for the love of God, save the whole grain flour for your pasta or toast if you want. Just buy the plain white flour taralli. I recommend it with olive oil. Also onion.

Categories
Essays

Thursday Nights in Italy

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. 

Aperitivo.

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.