“Wherever we travel to, the wonderful people we meet become our family” -Lailah Gifty Akita,
My life is full of deliciously layered people who color my world and seem like characters from a movie or book. In 2011 I met Anna (Ferdinando’s mother) and her two sisters for the first time in Salerno in a small, family owned and operated bakery and grocery store. It was a very first trip to Italy with my friend Julie. Claudio took us on a day trip to the coast and on our way we stopped in to say hello to these people I had never met before. Anna and her sisters were in their positions behind the baked goods when we arrived. Of course the first introduction was a bit overwhelming as they all wanted to know who these American girls were and what exactly they were doing with Claudio in Salerno. Julie and I didn’t have much to offer in way of conversation as we arrived with a very limited Italian vocabulary. Nonetheless, before we left Anna and her sisters loaded us up with panini and fresh mozzarella for our day at the beach. When we left that day I had no idea that these three women would later become notable characters in my Italian story.
Since my first trip Claudio and I have spent more time in Salerno with Ferdi and his family, allowing me to cement my relationship with these colorful, jovial, charismatic women. Each one of these sisters are almost the exact same height and carry an obvious sibling resemblance. Anna, with her sassy bobbed hair and Cheesier cat-like grin, is always fanning herself and saying “caldo, caldo, molto caldo” (hot, hot, very hot). When she makes a joke, she looks at me for a second then erupts into a guttural laugh whether I’ve made it to the punchline or not. And I can’t help but laugh back because her reaction to her own joke is infectious. The middle sister, Rosaria, always greets me with a huge smile and begins telling me the story about when visited Canada. Every. Time. I can never understand what she’s saying as it is all so fast, so overwhelming, between being handed a fresh slice of bread and being hugged, kissed, and looked over, head to toe by interested and intrigued Italian women. And apparently Rosaria refuses to call me Carrie with double r’s. Instead, she calls me Carie, pronounced Cedie. “No. Not Carrie. Carrie is too harsh. Carie. Dolce Carie” she tells everyone. And finally Patrizia, the romantic-at-heart baby of these three, gazes at me with a smile, her head shifting slightly back and forth, almost like a puppy. She is the sweetheart, the dreamer, the youngest of these women and she always tells Claudio, “She’s even more beautiful than the last time…” while I stand there blushing like a teenager. I can’t say it’s the worst feeling, to be greeted by these women with such warmth and ovation that I feel a bit like their American sweetheart. It isn’t a terrible thing, I can assure you. And visit after visit, year after year, my arrival to Salerno feels like a miniature parade of sorts. When I first walk into the bakery, there is small explosion of cheers followed by kisses to the face and a brief, gentile yet intense, stare down from all of them as if they are taking a photograph with their eyes, recording my face to ponder later. I live for these encounters with these women. Seeing them feels a bit like coming home; as if I have always been a part of this group, this tribe, this famiglia.
Three weeks ago, when I was last in Salerno, we stopped in the bakery before heading to the train station on my way back to Rome. And, as per usual, the sisters were situated behind the counter laughing with customers, slinging bread and pastrami. Anna, in mid sentence with a gentleman, hands me a slice of pizza she had made that morning. “Mangia, mangia” she says, finishing her conversation. This is not just a stereotype about Italian mamas, it is an absolute truth. You must eat whatever she hands you and trust me, you won’t be disappointed. Without hesitation I devoured this warm, little morsel covered is cheese and vegetables, in the corner of the store next to packages of varied styles of pasta. The whole scene happened organically, as if this were a typical occurrence. Because, after all, it was totally normal. This is the way I am greeted and treated by Anna and her sisters.
As we were leaving, Anna handed my a bag filled with a fresh panini, two mozzarella balls, and some fried cauliflower for my train ride. She wasn’t letting me out empty handed. Making my way to the door, I locked eyes with Patrizia, maintaining a gaze all the way out. “Ciao, Carie. Ci vediamo presto” they all shouted, waving and blowing kisses. And, as the door shut, that sweet blonde Italian woman kept looking out at me until I turned and hopped on the back of the motorcycle and rode away.
Here is something I have been blessed to learn time and time again: look upon someone with genuine interest and they will look back at you with interest.