This time of year, when stakes and strings hold up what’s overgrown in the garden, no matter how choked — and much of is — it’s the last of the cherry tomatoes that remind me how I could live without squash or pumpkins, but I could never live without tomatoes. Sprinkled with olive oil and salt, of course, but my favorite way to eat them is right off the vine with my feet in the dirt. The taste is a mix of late summer and fall and rivals anything wonderful I have ever eaten.
When you compare this taste to the grocery store version, bred not for flavor but for packing and shipping, it’s like one is a true love story and the other makes me think of faces that don’t know how to smile anymore.
When my dad built our family home, he planted the tomato garden before he laid the foundation. Tomatoes, Italians know, are essential to day-to-day life. When I asked him why he planted the garden in back of the garage instead of behind the kitchen, he told me he didn’t want to feel — feel rather than hear — all the noise that went on in there. This was my first understanding of two things: That sound will bounce in much the same way as light reflects. And that alone time is also essential.
Yesterday, I was reminded of something else essential to Italians. It was a revelation. And if anything demonstrates how we continue to learn about ourselves, like it or not, it’s a revelation. This one took place on a beach that is a 20-minute bicycle ride from the ferry landing on Bainbridge Island. It was there I met another Italian woman. She was beautiful, her looks were pure ethnicity. Her hand movements were pure Italian.
Naturally, we got to talking. Mostly in superlatives, at first — You are?! So am I! I thought so! It took only minutes for me to realize that what made the conversation so much fun was that we were allowed to interrupt each other and nothing about it felt rude or impolite. When I pointed this out, nearly breathless with delight, she reminded me that in Italian culture, it would be rude to not interrupt, “it would seem like you weren’t paying close attention,” she said.
This is absolutely true. But it’s been so long since I’ve shared a meal with my extended family, I’d nearly forgotten. “So,” she adds, “it can be hard here sometimes. Because, remember, immigrants from Nordic countries settled the Pacific Northwest and Nordics tend to save their input until you have finished speaking. So, you know, way different culture.”
On my bike ride home I thought how what she said was by far the most interesting thing I’ve heard about my upbringing in a long time. I don’t plan on making a habit of interrupting, promise, but I like the idea of interrupting stemming from heredity and passion. I like the implication of it — enthusiasm rather than rudeness. And the best part of the revelation was that I saw how this kind of conversation is also essential, dare I say innate, for Italians.
There is something mysterious about a serendipitous revelation, but there is something even better about being just two of millions of Italians who understand a particular trait about ourselves. It made me wonder if we have any real control over who we are. We may think we have a lot, but maybe we don’t.
My husband is a mix of Scottish, English, and Irish. And if you Google what Scottish/English/Irish conversational traits share in common, you will find this: “They like to engage in polite conversations. It is best not to inquire about personal information upon meeting them.” If he had been with me on the beach yesterday, once my revelation-giver and I became instantly intimate, he would have walked on to inspect the seaweed, quickly, as if he was afraid that we would attempt to engage him. He is not breathless with delight, ever, though he does have his moments … but still, nowhere in his conversations are the emotions that brought him to his opinion unless I beg him to elaborate. Even then, it will take him 24 to 36 hours to figure out what he thinks he is feeling. Though he’s not really sure.
Before this chance encounter, I was beginning to think there was something wrong with me to care so much about what is being said that I just can’t wait to interject and say exactly how I feel. Which is generally perceived as So Damn Rude.
When I called an Italian friend to tell her about my revelation, she said something that still makes me laugh, “All these people who want to tramp all over Rick Steves’ version of Italy, but what they really know about Italians you’d have to multiply by a hundred and then we’d still have only the beginning of any real understanding between us. Mostly,” she added, “they pay attention too little and eat too much.”
It’s hard to believe that I can start out by writing about tomatoes and end up here, but the very fact that the next time I just have to interrupt you, I will no longer feel like a very bad person, cheers me up no end.
Mary Lou Sanelli is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays that was nominated for a Washington State Book Award and a Pacific Northwest Book Award. Her previous titles include fiction, non-fiction, and a new children's title, Bella Likes To Try. She also works as a speaker and a master dance teacher. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.