They say that smell can unlock forgotten memories of childhood, beautiful holidays or special events and I agree with that, wholeheartedly. Especially when it comes to the smell of food. Growing up in the little town of Indiana Pennsylvania, I experienced a typical American childhood. Even though my parents were originally Italian,
I learned to speak Italian at a young age so I could converse with my grandparents who lived with us. Otherwise, I was into American fashion, music, sports, and culture. For instance: When I thought about ‘football’, it was gridiron - not soccer…
Going to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was a bonus as I lived with my parents and at twenty-one years old, I prided myself as being quite shrewd for my age. My friends considered me to be level-headed, responsible if not a little boring, but I hated the idea of doing anything frivolous, antisocial, or reckless.
In the next few weeks, I would finally get my law degree but while my friends thought about celebrating, getting drunk and spring break, I researched potential employers and the best performing 401Ks.
My parents and grandparents were so proud, as not only was I going to be the first one in our family to have a tertiary degree, but I was doing so well. So much so that my grandparents wanted to celebrate and take the whole family to Italy and visit family. I agreed as I’ve never been to Italy, and it meant a lot to my grandfather.
Carlo Pellicciotta was born in the village of Chieti, located in the Abruzzo region of Italy, and lived there until he immigrated to America with his wife and thirteen your old son - my father. I was named after him but went by the name of Carl, so I could fit in at school. My grandfather and father, often spoke about life in Italy, but it seemed so… alien to me.
Both of my parents went back a few years ago but I couldn’t join, as I was deep in studies. When I spoke to them about why they went and what they experienced, it didn’t sound like something I wanted to do myself. Cheap designer clothes… handbags… trips to the markets wasn’t my thing, ‘here’ so why would I want to search for it ‘there’?
A few months later, I found myself on an Alitalia flight headed to Rome and spotted the ancient ruins and umbrella pines as we landed. I understood that I was no longer in Kansas… or Indiana, to be correct.
Gawking the entire time, we walked from the airport to waiting minivans and I couldn’t believe how different everything was! The sounds… The smells… The sights and the people were so foreign to me! Pardon the pun.
A few hours later, we arrived in the ancient city of Chieti, located in the beautiful green region of Abruzzo. I did some research before my trip and found that Chieti was originally called ‘Teate’, which was the Italian name for the mother of Achilles. It was a Greek colony and so old, that it fought a war with an upstart city by the name of Rome.
Once settled in my uncle’s villa, we did some sightseeing, and the family took us around to see the sights. I was so impressed with the beautiful, rich culture and began to feel pride in my roots. Each town had a specialty, whether it was wine, olives, ceramics or food and I loved learning more about them.
A few days later, the whole family had picnic up in the Maiella mastiff. It was approaching a hundred degrees when we left my uncles villa, but we appreciated the fifty degree change in temperature when we arrived at the picnic spot. There were so many uncles, aunties, and cousins that I never met, so it was a little overwhelming to say the least.
Apart from the very cool temperature, the clouds were so low that I could almost reach up and touch them but what distracted me was the smell of the arrosticini cooking on specially made BBQs. My dad explained to me that arrosticini were small, lightly salted mutton-cube shish kebabs, which our region was known for.
Uncle Giovanni approached me and asked,
“Are you looking forward to eating some arrosticini?”
“Yeah! I’ve never had it before!”
Zio (Uncle) Giovanni reacted as if I confessed a great sin and called over to a young girl that slowly went from person to person, with a large plate of just cooked arrosticini.
“Flavia, vieni qua (Flavia, come here)!”
Suddenly, a gorgeous girl with long black hair and expressive brown eyes turned and faced me. She initially had a beautiful smile which waned for a moment as our eyes locked. Flavia walked toward us, and her movement was like music in motion, but I felt bad about what I… felt!
Being attracted to a cousin in most cultures would be considered taboo so I didn’t know how to deal with it, but relief couldn’t even begin to describe what I felt when zio introduced us.
“Carlo… This is Flavia, who’s parents are a good friends of the family. Flavia, this is my nephew Carlo from America!”
Flavia and I did the customary kiss on each cheek thing that I still had problems getting used to and I smelled her Acqua di gioia perfume. A moment later, she handed me three arrosticini and asked,
“Do you like arrosticini?”
“I’ve never had it before.”
Flavia’s facial expression was a mix of surprise and disbelief, but I took it in my stride and bit into the lightly salted grilled sheep meet.
Oh… My… God…
How was it possible that I’ve never eaten this before!! It was like ‘meat crack’. My parents and grandparents told me about the amazing food in their region but tasting it, was something else. Catching my father’s eye, I raised my arrosticini and he did the same, with a knowing look in his eyes. Flavia then asked,
“Do you like it?”
“Like it?! It’s one of the most delicious things that I’ve ever eaten!!”
Her laugh was musical, and I felt another sting of attraction, but she still seemed confused by my reaction.
“What is your favorite food in America?”
“Oh… uhm, cheeseburgers.”
“Cheese… burgers… like the McDonald's?”
Was her next question but I explained that I was more into the gourmet kind, with blue cheese and so forth. The smell of hot bread distracted me, and I spotted a large picnic table where some of my aunties spooned locally made hot ricotta onto freshly toasted, home-made ciabatta bread. Flavia followed my line of sight and knew better than to ask if I had ever tried it.
Without saying a word, she took my hand and lead me to the direction of the heavenly sent then handed me a piece. The crunch of the toasty bread and the creamy, salty ricotta was an experience. I kept asking myself, how could something so simple and down to earth taste so good?!
Once again, I looked up at the low clouds, the beautiful green mountains, my joyous family and was moved by the experience. Flavia sensed my mood and quietly asked,
“You have nothing like this in America, do you?”
She was referring to the toasted bread and cheese, but I was thinking about everything I saw.
We were joined by some of my cousins, and I did pretty well with communicating with them. Only having to pull out my phone to use my translator a few times.
They were a great bunch, and we were of similar ages, with Luciano, who was twenty-three. Maria, who was twenty-two… Maurizio was my age and then was Flavia, who was a year younger than me. Flavia was just over five foot tall, but I never realized how short she was, until we all got up from the picnic blanket. Maybe it was because of her stature and proportions…
Time seemed to fly by while Flavia, and I got to know more about each other, so I was extremely disappointed when we began to shut down the festivities. Fortunately, Luciano asked me,
“What are you doing tomorrow, Carlo?”
“Uhm… Nothing. I think we’re just going to hang out with zio Giovanni and zia (auntie) Clara.”
“Why don’t you come with us! We’re all going to the beach in Pescara and stay at the Sabbia D'Oro (Gold Sand) beach resort, to get some sun and do some swimming… Flavia works there.”
It was the last part that really got me, so we proceeded to make plans as to when they would pick me up. The following morning, I heard an almost comical toot from a car horn and when I looked outside, found an equally comical mint green FIAT 500.
Walking toward it with my towel in hand, Luciano could tell that I was amused at his wheels.
“Don’t you like FIATs, Carlo?”
I still found it strange when my family referred to me as ‘Carlo’ and not Carl, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone by correcting them.
“I like them, but I don’t see many in America.”
“What do you drive, Carlo?”
Asked Maria and I explained that I had a Mustang. Luciano whistled and asked,
“How big is the motor?”
“Uhm… five litres?”
Maurizio laughed and said,
“This thing is not even one litre!”
My cousins wanted to know more about my life in America, while we drove down the country roads toward the Adriatic. The day was warm, and the sun shone down on us through the open roof of our little targa FIAT. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so free, happy, and relaxed! No stress… No rigid study schedules… Just the wind in my hair and Eros Ramazzotti playing on the car radio. I had never heard of him before, but I loved his voice.
Twenty minutes later, we entered a little coffee bar, located in the beach resort we were visiting. Beach resorts were popular in large towns in Italy, as you could hire beach umbrellas and chairs for the day, while having access to colds drinks and hot meals. Flavia was serving a gelato cone to a patron and when she looked at me, I felt like I was hit by a bolt of lightning.
I’ve had a few girlfriends back in my high school days and early college - nothing serious but none of them affected me like this! Flavia seemed to be affected the same way and after regathering herself, gave me a big smile and said,
“Salve (Hi), Carlo… and Maurizio, Luciano and Maria.”
My cousins seemed amused that Flavia almost didn’t see them, then after we paid for the day’s beach chair and umbrella rental, they made their way to our spot. I said that I’d catch up to them shortly, as I wanted to keep Flavia company for a while.
We spoke between customers, and she announced that her shift ended at 1:00 PM. Joining my cousins on the beach, we continued learning more about each other and it was then that questions were raised about our compatibility.
She was impressed that I had a law degree and was awaiting to take the bar, but she struggled to find interest in the amount of time that it took or my financial plans. She however, worked part-time at the beach resort and found whatever work she could get during the winter. Usually at grocery stores or something similar. Trying to find out something more interesting about me she asked,
“What do you do for fun, Carlo?”
“Oh! Well on Friday nights, me and my friends go to Cullpepers in Indiana for a few beers and a live show…”
She kept waiting for me to add to my list of fun things and even I found myself surprised by how short it was. One thing didn’t make a list.
“What about you, Flavia?”
“During the winter, I go skiing and travelling through Europe. In summer, I go out dancing with my friends and stay up all night, eating gelato, canoli or brioche buns… We also like going to the surrounding towns when they have festas! I also help the priest at my church with administrative tasks.”
As Flavia continued, I was amazed by how much… richer her life was. I lived to work – she worked to live. My cousins were similar, in that they had jobs that helped them make ends meet but they had many sporting and recreational pass times.
They began to feel sorry for me and in truth, I began feeling sorry for myself. Sensing my funk, Flavia asked,
“Are you happy with your life?”
Happy? Well, I found it rewarding to have received a degree in law and that my career was heading in the right path. I was pleased that I borrowed little as far as student loans, as I worked part time and lived with my parents. That I had friends with similar interests that I got along with…
Staring into the distance but barely seeing the blue Adriatic see in front of me, I thought about my life while people around me enjoyed the beautiful day, without a care in the world. I recently learned that Italians shopped from day to day and not week to week as we did back in the states. Sometimes, they shopped meal to meal!
It became clearer to me what life was like in Italy. It was to be enjoyed and celebrated with good friends, family, and food… I remembered hearing a saying that ‘Italy isn’t a country... It’s an emotion…’ and I understood that now. Snapping myself out of my reverie, I finally responded,
“Yeah! I’m happy…”
“What are you doing tonight?”
Was Flavia’s next question.
“I don’t know. Would you like to show me what you do for fun?”
Flavia flashed me a big, beautiful smile then she and my cousins worked on the night’s itinerary.
Once dropped off at home, we arranged to meet at ten PM as that’s when most of the restaurants opened in the evening. I initially thought I misheard them but no…
There were now five of us in our little FIAT but apart from breaking the law, it was almost physically impossible, but it added to our merriment. Being close to six foot tall, they suggested that I sat in the passenger’s seat, but I kept looking back at Flavia and we seemed to enjoy this new and fun connection.
Dinner was long, delicious and it was about three in the morning when we left… then found a coffee bar for dessert. Flavia and I shared a cream filled cornetto and coffee, then we all stayed there talking until five AM. I asked her more about her life, what she enjoyed and with each passing hour, my own life drifted away like a memory… or a dream.
It was our second night out when we first kissed, and it rocked me to my core. In fact, everything about Italy filled the emptiness that I didn’t realize laid inside of me. The way she felt… smelled, tasted, sounded, and looked were joy to all five senses and I began to miss her when we weren’t together.
It was six in the morning when I walked into my uncle’s place and found my parent’s having some espresso in the kitchen. My father was reminiscing with zio Giovanni and said,
“I’m going to miss you; cousin but I promise that it won’t be another thirty years until you see me again!”
Oh, no… What was the date? Three weeks flew by in the wink of an eye, and we were heading home the next day! My first thought was to call Flavia as I needed to talk to her.
“Flavia? It’s Carlo…”
“Carlo! You miss me already? I’m still in Luciano’s car!”
I then explained that I forgot that we’d be leaving the next day and asked her if she could come by later in the afternoon.
It was about three when I heard a little vespa, putt-putt up the driveway and it seemed that Flavia’s mood mirrored my own. The three weeks together were the happiest of my life and I didn’t want it to end but I had to return to America.
We spoke about when I could return to visit, and I asked if it were possible for her to take a trip to the states. Sitting on my bed with our phones out, we friended each other on Insta and Facebook, when suddenly, she practically threw herself onto me and said,
“I want you to experience one last Italian passion…”
I had no idea how we remained so, quiet as my bedroom was located directly above the lounge-room and afterward, we just laid there, then Flavia said,
“Please don’t forget me…”
Forget her! She was the only thought in my mind for the last three weeks!
A few weeks later, I had taken a trip to Walmart as I wanted to buy some ricotta and crusty bread. The ricotta came out of a tub and tasted of nothing, so I was disappointed with the whole idea. Actually, my whole life seemed dull and meaningless to me now.
Flavia and I, DM’d and faced timed each other every day and I missed her so much, then one day while walking through Macy’s woman’s perfume department, a sales associate sprayed some Acqua di gioa for a customer. The smell of the perfume was like a bullet through my heart – killing the old me.
A week had passed since that moment in Macy’s and couldn’t believe how much my life had changed in a short time. I was still shaking my head, as I parked my newly purchased FIAT 500, in front of the Sabbia D'Oro beach resort.
Hungry for good food, Italy, life, and Flavia…
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.