Sunday, September 13, 2009

Italian dreams

I believe Italian was my first native language, along with English. As a young child, our neighbors were the D’Angelos. Grandma and Grandpa D’Angelo, who lived in the next house over, were from the old country and only spoke Italian…probably dialect. I remember being fascinated by their home which was “different” than my home. It also represented my “boundary.” I could ride my tricycle to their house. Grandma was always cooking and called me bambina. We moved away when I was six years old, but my memories of her are still clear.

As a teenager I was attracted to students of other cultures.  I had for many years maintained contact with several Pen Pals overseas in Trinidad, India, Sweden and Scotland.  I dreamed of being a foreign exchange student. That dream was never full-filled...until many many years later.

I graduated from college, married, experienced the joy of raising two children and then had an exciting job working for a government agency. My x-husband worked there too. We seemed to live the American dream for many years, until he suffered a nervous breakdown. His medical records were sealed and our family endured a contentious divorce. We all suffered. The nightmare continued for years and years. But this Blog is not about that.

During those dark painful times, a woman at our church approached me and suggested I make a list of 10 things I had always wanted to do. I made the list and worked my way through it: learn to swim, take Spanish lessons, work at a local art festival. I recall I went through at least two lists of ten items. I felt myself re-awakening.

Then, one spring about 12 years ago, my cousin’s daughter announced she was to be a foreign exchange student for six summer weeks.

I enviously watched her prepare for the adventure. When she worried about leaving her friends for the summer, I was afraid she would miss a wonderful opportunity. I had hoped to vicariously enjoy her trip from a distance. I read her paperwork and saw the name of her assigned Italian family and watched all the preparations with envy. When she wavered at the last moment about actually leaving, I tried to dissuade her from from changing her mind. She was 16 years old and a little scared to travel by herself to unknown parts. I told her I would go in her place, only half joking. And then finally, she departed! She was on her way to Italy.

In August she happily returned to the USA and her mother discovered that the host family had secretly placed in her suitcase, video cassettes which documented her entire Italian adventure. While she slept off her jet-lag I watched every minute of the movies, wishing it had been my very own experience.

It was the ultimate dream for me when that real Italian family arrived two days later in Los Angeles. After watching hours of videos, it seemed as if I had already met them when they climbed out of her SUV that afternoon in Newport Beach. I knew their voices and faces. I of course, was a total stranger to them.

I don't recall how it came about, but I spent the entire day in my cousin’s kitchen cooking with Marina while her husband Primo translated. When necessary their daughter Marta did heavy duty translating, while her older sister Rosa was too shy to try out her English. (I have changed their names to protect their privacy.) I made notes for all the recipes. I was so thrilled!

We cooked delicious things: chocolate pudding, hand made pesto, grilled peppers with anchovy sauce. My cousin did not particularly like the foreign tastes and encouraged me to take it all home that evening. I ate every morsel. I was enchanted by the whole family, the food, the language, the culture. They had booked a tour of the southwest and left us the next day.

After their tour ended, we met them for lunch, the day before their departure. That afternoon, they invited me to come and visit them later in the year. When I was absolutely positive they were serious in extending this offer to me, I accepted and my life changed.

I immediately began to attend Italian lessons with Alberto, native of Venice, at Francoli Restaurant in Newport Beach. I was a faithful student, every Tuesday night. I remember writing the word “mercoledi’” (meaning Wednesday) on my hand and looking at it over and over again, for an entire day, as I struggled to memorize it. (I continued to study with Alberto for three years, until Alberto needed to give up our night classes.)

Later that year when I arrived in Italy for my first visit, two things struck me immediately: the earthy smell of the countryside and noise of a language I did not understand. Shorn of cultural pressures, I enjoyed a freedom I had never previously felt. I discovered that it was possible to start fresh and live as the person I always had wanted to be. I also fell madly in love with the Family of My Heart: Marina, Primo, Marta and Rosa.

Marina's Chocolate Pudding
100 g flour
100 g sugar
50 g cocoa amaro (bitter)
50 g cocoa dolce (sweet)
1 liter milk

Cook for 10 minutes, whipping very very often with a wire whisk. Watch the heat as it will burn easily.
Makes 6 dessert cups.

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