This is what I came for. If I have to leave tomorrow, I’ll be sorry, but I’ll know that I have been immersed in this culture for an evening. And I don’t mean my travelogue to be all about food. However, in parts of the world the social life seems to revolve around it.
A little prologue
I have been wandering about looking for a rental because my present apartment is pretty expensive, is booked after the first of October and isn’t in a real neighborhood of Italians. I have a couple of phone numbers given to me by neighbors, etc. and so I was wandering back toward my house when I encountered some older women (one later known as Miss Cranky) sitting on benches in the shade. One of the women moved her cane aside and motioned for me to sit. We struggled to converse for a few minutes but my mind was blank other that to say I have children and grandchildren. She didn’t seem interested in that and I really couldn’t understand anything she was saying to me. As I got up to leave she reached behind the bench and handed me a plastic sack of garbage and motioned toward the road. Of course, I took it. I met a man coming the other direction and asked him (sign language) where to take it and he sent me up the hill. Sure enough, there was the row of bins, so I dropped it in and headed back toward home. When I passed her again she smiled, called out, “Mille Grazie!” Stupidly, I said “You’re welcome”, instead of “Prego” and waved. “Ciao”, she replied. This was quite the concession since it is a greeting usually reserved for friends. I laughed to myself realizing that it might be easy to make friends if I were to empty the garbage for all of the older women walking with canes.
Later that evening, for my first dining out experience in Scalea I sought out a Trattoria (also billed as a Taverna) near the top of the Centro Storico. On my way up I saw my friend again. She was laboring up the steps near one of the available rentals. Typical of a small village, the news had traveled that I was looking. I couldn’t understand but I think she was telling me to call the owners. I told her that I had tried but hadn’t received an answer. She was adamant, “Domani”. I assured her that I would call again tomorrow. She turned toward a stairway next to the Trattoria and sat at the base of the steps.
I was the first customer of the evening and so wasn’t too surprised to get a lot of attention, although I wondered if part of it was due to my friend who sat busily calling out instructions from her vantage point.
An enthusiastic young boy (who later told me he was 16 years old) carefully laid out the white table cloths topped with a second layer of red-checked covers. He placed my napkin on a plate and meticulously set the spoon and fork in position. He asked me if I wanted wine. Did I want white or red? When I vacillated he called out another man who asked me again. I tried to explain that I wanted to know what they were serving before I chose a wine. The cook leaned out the half door from the kitchen, backed away and came hurriedly to the table with a menu.
He talked and gestured, letting me know that the fusilli was made by hand. When I asked about the goat meat in the description he waved his hand to the boy, who ran inside and came back with a fresh rolled sausage on a plate. I understood that there was no goat meat at the moment but the pasta would be made with this glorious hunk of sausage. Fine and dandy! I ordered some broccoli to go with it and the older waiter decided on red wine and then sat on the steps and talked with me.
I was happy for them when other people started to arrive: a young couple, a family. a large group of couples with one small girl. Soon it was transformed from the grey stone of ancient walls surrounding an empty terrace to a noisy, rosily lit colorful piazza.
In the midst of the activity my (garbage) friend struggled to her feet and went up the stairs to her home and I was left to wait for my food.
I was never ignored, however. As the waiters (and sometimes the cook) prepared the tables for the guests, brought the drinks, and eventually ran up and down the steps with huge platters and bowls of food, they constantly nodded and smiled. The cook leaned out the half-door and raised a glass of wine in salute. I was served a lovely bruschetta when they thought I was waiting too long. (I believe they were making the fusilli to order.)
And then my pasta came. It was served in a large bowl as if I were a family.
Okay, so you all know that I am a gobbler. I try to remember to chew, but sometimes I forget and my plate is empty before I realize it. Not tonight. I was compelled to savor each mouthful. I smiled as I ate. I hesitated between bites because my mouth was happy just the way it was, remembering the last bite.
When the cook came out to see if I was finished, I begged to take the pasta home with me. He looked surprised (I don’t know the etiquette of my request) but smiled and took the bowl away. Before my broccoli (which wasn’t broccoli at all but some wonderfully bitter kale) was served, a glass plate covered in tin foil was placed on my table.
I spent more than an hour and a half at that table. I watched the cook and waiters greet people by shaking hands with both hands. I watched the young waiter pat the head of the child who was tired of waiting for food. His next trip out he brought a doll wrapped in a dinner napkin and set it in front of her. I smelled the aroma of wonderful food. I listened to the hum of conversation from the tables around me. I watched a lizard warm itself against the glass of the streetlight.
I was a part of the evening. My warm feelings were confirmed when a young woman at the large table called “Buona Sera”, as I walked away.