Being in Florence has given me a new perspective on what it means to be Italian and how American Italian is so vastly different than authentic Italian; yet despite all of these differences, there are still some similarities in both the native people and the removed people that remain consistent and prove that culture is incredibly far-reaching.
The door handle beckoned “Tirare,” but I knew it wasn’t just telling me to pull. It was telling me to come inside to get cradled by the warmth, get lost inside the plethora of colors, to take in the amazingly sweet smells, and most importantly – let my tongue relish in the multitude of tastes.
Soft, thick folds of creamy white, silky brown, and buttery caramel were sprinkled with light brown morsels of cookies, chocolate drizzles, and cocoa powder. They sat patiently in large shiny metal tins – whispering at me through the thick glass dome protecting them, telling me to take them home. A gray-haired man wearing a chunky knit sweater and a baseball cap appeared behind the counter to distract me from this daydream come true. Silently, I deemed him the sultan of the gorgeous layers of milky confections before me that I couldn’t wait to devour.
His wrinkles insinuated that he was probably around the same age as my grandfather and his smile confirmed it – a comforting smile, a knowing one that comes with time, patience, and a lifetime of experiences. He stood with his hands behind his back as he watched me painstakingly decide which flavor to try, as if my life depended on such a momentous decision.
I managed to find the words in Italian to ask him if I could try a flavor; the phrase didn’t glide as smoothly as it would a native speaker’s. It falls off my tongue haltingly, incredibly hesitant and awkward. Virtually screaming out that I’m a foreigner.
“Posso avere….. assaggiate…… ‘Biscottino?’”
He smiled and murmured something in response but I was too preoccupied by the miniscule plastic spoon he was dipping into the vat of fluffy goodness to stop and process what he said. After the ‘Biscottino’ had melted in my mouth and had me watering more than one of Pavlov’s dogs, I immediately tried two more flavors. One was called ‘Bacio’ and the other, ‘Arachidi.’ ‘Bacio’ harnessed the uncanny ability to taste exactly like chilled Nutella – with that same familiar bite of hazelnuts wrapped in delectable malleable chocolate. ‘Arachidi’ tasted extraordinarily like I had a spoonful of freshly opened Jiff in my mouth. With my taste buds dancing the Danube Waltz, I realized there was only one thing left to do.
“Tutti,” I said and this time, the old man smiled big and said, “Prego” – a word I had no problem understanding, as he bent down to scoop all three flavors into a cup. Realizing I may spoil my dinner, I asked the man if I could take the cup to go. “Per andare?” I said, feeling a bit more confident with the language barrier – I got the point across before, I could probably do it again… Immediately, the man’s face changed. He mumbled something unintelligible and my confused face in response made him simplify his words – “PORTARE. VUOI GELATO PORTARE.” It took a few seconds to process but I realized that this man simply just wanted me to say the right word – portare, to take, instead of andare, to go. I blushed and apologized, in both English and Italian, but when he didn’t charge me full price, I realized what had just happened. It wasn’t that the old man was angry or annoyed at my mistake – he, like my grandfather, just wanted me to learn a lesson so as to do the one thing that men his age are the best at doing – teach.