But Why Choose Italy?
Ordering a Sandwich Tells All
(Wilbur T. Woodson School, Virginia)
The eighth plague of Egypt, SYA students descend on unsuspecting Italian towns as locusts, buzzing with English, invading all cafes in our path, destroying what we find, and leaving just as quickly as our arrival.
It’s in such a situation that my friend Campbell and I enter a salumeria in Cerveteri, a sleepy town in central Italy. A short nod from the balding middle-aged man at the register welcomes us, and we ask him in Italian whether the store offers sandwiches. Yes, yes, of course they do, as he leads us to the counter where we select toppings. He holds up a finger, and bolts out of the shop. Campbell and I share wide-eyed looks of surprise. From the window, I notice him across the street at a bread market, purchasing at least four different varieties of bread at breakneck pace. He sprints back with purchases clutched precariously in his arms, dodging a Vespa with an expertise known only to the Italian pedestrian.
The breads are thrust in our faces. “Quale?” After a few moments of futile pondering, we consent to being ignorant Americans whose knowledge is limited to Wonder Bread and allow him to choose in our stead. He then meticulously prepares the sandwiches, furrowed brows like caterpillars in a tight V on his face. The total price is less than five euro. I offer him a fifty-euro note. Is it okay to pay with this?
A gapped smiled stretches his face. Certainly, of course it’s alright. But as he leafs through the register, I know it’s not. He shouts to a young employee stocking shelves, and rapid Italian fills the air. Snatching the fifty-euro note, the employee exits the shop, a man on a mission. Through the window we see him weaving in and out of stores on his quest for change.
He arrives back at the shop a few minutes later, chest heaving, face glistening, but with fourty-five euros in change. Although we thank him profusely, he shakes his head, because, as he tells us, it’s nothing, nothing really.
The maestro of sandwiches steps out from the counter, and asks why we are in Italy. The standard answer; we’re American students, here in Certveteri for the Etruscan necropolis. Mumbling a sharp gesticulations follow. Finally, the employee turns back. “But why,” he gasps, “why choose Italy?”
Suddenly I realize that I can never be skilled enough in either Italian or my mother tongue to explain to the expectant men what this moment means to me. Instead, we answer lamely, something about Latin and ancient history. I wish I could return to that little salumeria and tell those men, “Can’t you see you’ve just answered your question?”