Easter dinner was such a treat and yet a rather odd and, in part, sobering experience. Bisnonna was determined to fill Donald and me in on the goings on Hitler’s foray into Italy while Monica and Patrizio seemed to do whatever they could to avoid such a discussion on the one day of the year, Pasqua, that rivals Christmas.
As if to change the subject, Monica said in English, “I’ve been studying English with a private tutor.” “Molto buono,” Donato told her.
I asked, “What have you studied so far?” “Mostly how to say things,” she replied.
“What kind of things?” “Well…” she hesitated and then, “We don’t fry with water.”
“What?” I looked at Donald and we both turned to Monica who began to giggle. She repeated, “We don’t fry with water.” With the exception of bisnonna, all of us burst into laughter. I had no idea if Monica was laughing because she was thrilled with her accomplishment or if she realized just how funny the statement sounded. It didn’t matter. As I listened to her speak English, I realized she was absolutely charming.
“What else?” I asked. As Monica very slowly raised first her right hand, then her left and then moved both hands towards her face, she said, “One hand showers the other; two hands shower the face.” She laughed again, adding, “It’s not the vegetable garden way,” followed by, “Don’t say cat, if you don’t have the cat in the bag.” Oh my God, that’s probably how I sound when I speak Italian.
I was reminded of the time our friend Emanuela Sarti told us about a female owner of a milk farm near our home in Sonoma. Manuela, speaking English said, “She maka da milk.” Again, we had laughed. I imagined that must have been how the residents of North Beach sounded when they spoke English. I thought too of Stefania who had once said, “Conosco i miei polli,” which means I know my chicken. I had chuckled then as well. At first it had seemed such an odd statement, but as Stefania went on to explain it simply meant she knew what she was talking about. I was wondering what was behind the statements Monica had made when Donald said, “Learning a new language is so difficult.” Immediately, I agreed, recalling that just a couple days ago I had told Patrizio that his and Monica’s new asses (culi) were enormous when I had meant to say that the cubic meters (cubi) of their new apartment were quite grand. Monica was still snickering when Ernesto topped my glass with more red wine – one more point to Ernesto. I needed to pay more attention. I continued to eat and drink slowly. Ernesto returned carrying a tureen of rabbit stew. Now, ever mindful of Ernesto’s swift hand, I finished the stew and quickly covered my plate with my napkin, barely beating Ernesto in his attempt to serve me another helping. He nodded in recognition of my success. I was now keeping score. It was 3 to 2, in Ernesto’s favor.
Bisnonna lit another cigarette, only this time she stayed at the table. Monica yelled at her, “Not in front of Samuele; go to the door.” Reluctantly she got up and took a step or two in the direction of the kitchen and smoked her cigarette.
Ernesto poured a sweet dessert wine into my glass, still half full of the red table wine he had poured earlier. I deducted a point from his score for sloppiness. Now we’re tied, I thought, laughing inside at the absurdity of this little food competition. Patrizio looked at Ernesto, shook his head and went to the cupboard. I was watching Patrizio as he returned with a new wine glass when Ernesto slyly slipped another large slice of cake onto my plate. He laughed. The score was 4 to 3 now. Once the dessert plates were taken away, Tiziana served coffee. Ernesto topped my coffee cup with several ounces of Cognac, but I let the drink sit, untouched – one point for me. The score was 4 to 4; game over.
“Buona Pasqua,” everyone shouted as we opened the Easter gifts that Tiziana, like Dad at Christmas time, had passed to each of us. Inside each gift was an enormous chocolate egg. I unwrapped the colorful package and following Italian tradition slammed my egg hard on top of the dining table. The egg broke into pieces, revealing another (plastic) egg, one filled with trinkets and cheap toys. The popping sound of the champagne bottle Patrizio had opened meant one final toast. And, once again, we shouted, “Buona Pasqua.”
After a number of effusive shouts of Arrivederci and Grazie, Donald and I, stuffed like little piggies, went home. We called the kids, who were just beginning their Easter egg hunt. When Courtney passed the phone to Kendall, the first thing she said was Nonno? I handed the phone to Donald and sat down on the living room floor. My ballooning stomach screamed for room and, just as my dad and my grandfather had done after holiday meals, I undid the top button of my pants. I opened the bag of Easter goodies to find that Ernesto had crammed another dozen or so extra chocolate eggs inside. In the final tally, Ernesto had clearly and cleverly beaten me. Nevertheless, I felt like a winner. I had just spent a day in the home of Italian friends on Italy’s favorite holiday, a very Buona Pasqua.
As I reminisced about the day, my thoughts turned to Monica. I was struck by how delightful she had sounded speaking English and then it occurred to me that I had always found foreigners attempting to speak English incredibly charming. Perhaps the Lucchesi thought the same about me when I spoke their language. Suddenly, my good spirits were lifted even higher.
And, I realized, had I not learned a bit of the blessed linqua, Italiano, I never would have been invited into the home of an Italian for the one day of the year that rivaled Christmas.