My Italian friend Ellie is going to New York for a month on Saturday. Ellie has been my conversation exchange partner for the past six weeks. We meet once a week and she speaks English to me and I speak Italian to her. Ellie is an aspiring stage actress but she is going to New York to take a four-week course at the New York Film Institute.
This will be Ellie’s first time in the states and she is both excited and apprehensive. I have been explaining to her during our time together, what I think might be some crucial things to know about the U.S. in general and New York in particular. Such as:
Bagels: what they are, where you get them, what you might consider eating on them
Coffee in the U.S.: this was a MUCH longer conversation because I had to explain Starbucks and how she might want to avoid it; flavored coffee (she is fascinated by this and can’t wait to try it, especially hazelnut); the new gourmet McDonalds coffee; and how you order coffee with milk at a deli in New York, ‘coffee light’ (at least that’s how it used to be); and finally that places that served coffee were either delis or coffee houses (like in Vienna) and that ‘bars’ serve alcohol and very bad coffee
Pizza: American pizza is very different from Italian pizza and Ellie is from the south where according to her, and every other southerner I have met, ‘real’ Italian pizza is made. I’m afraid she will be shocked by what we call pizza in the states so I tried to warn her not to have high expectations
Then I also told her about the Union Square Market (the fresh vegetable market on Union Square), and about Whole Foods which I explained was like nothing she had ever seen in Italy and was worth a trip.
I also explained to her that it was absolutely crucial that she get an e-mail address and be prepared to check it often because Americans love their e-mail as much as Italians love their cell phones. Ellie has three cell phones (no joke). When I told her that many Americans had at least two if not three e-mail addresses she understood how crucial e-mail is in the U.S.
Ellie will be joined in New York and at the film school by her Italian friend Mary who is also an aspiring actress. Today, Ellie and I met for the last time before she leaves. Much of our conversation was about what it is like to live in a foreign country for a couple of months, what would be new and exciting and what you would miss about home. I told her a bit about my experiences like the fact that in addition to missing my friends and my apartment, I also miss rather odd things like large American gyms and particular American food like salty snacks. Being Italian and therefore quite serious about her food Ellie has real sympathy for people who might be missing their particular cuisine from home, no matter how odd she might find it. In fact, she explained to me that her friend Mary was going to be prepared for her stay in New York because she had packed several boxes of pasta and canned tomatoes in her luggage.
That’s right, pasta and canned tomatoes.
While trying not to laugh, I explained to Ellie (in Italian mind you so I’m not sure how well I did) that at least 40 million, if not 100 million (I forgot the exact statistics) people from her country had come to my country during the 19th and 20th centuries (among them both sets of my great-grandparents on my mother’s side) and therefore, if there was one thing we had in the U.S., particularly in New York (where most Italians settled), was pasta and canned tomatoes.
“Really?” She asked me with a very skeptical note in her voice. I swore on my grandmother’s grave that not only did we have pasta but we have two of the brands I see in Italian grocery stores, Barilla and DeCecco.
Still dubious she asked, “well then, what about Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese?” I told her not to worry about that either because she could find it in every grocery store, though I wouldn’t recommend the kind that comes in a can that you shake. She looked frightened when she heard about cheese in a can but who would blame her.
Perhaps foolishly, I did confess that when I was a kid “molti anni fa” many years ago, in the 70s to be exact, when my parents first moved to Oklahoma, my mother (who is originally from a very Italian-American town in Upstate New York called Utica) used to have her parents ship pasta and canned tomatoes to her because you couldn’t find them in the grocery stores. Or, to be exact (just in case my mother is reading this), you could find pasta but it was the kind that turned into mush when boiled. At the time, my mother’s cousin, Phil, was a regional sales-rep for a well-known pasta company and during one visit back to Utica, he explained to my mother that his company sent the pasta that melted and stuck together when it was boiled to a large portion of the country because that is what “Americans” preferred.
Now, have no fear, I didn’t tell Ellie this part of the story. I merely told her that if it made Mary feel safer, it was probably a good idea if she brought pasta and canned tomatoes. However, if she did not find pasta and canned tomatoes in every store in New York (except perhaps down in Chinatown), she should send me an e-mail and I would have my friend Julie drop by and deliver not only a load of pasta, but lots of other Italian food that they might be missing.
In the meantime, if any of my readers can think of anything that Ellie and Mary might need to know about the U.S. or New York, please let me know and I will send them an e-mail, which Ellie promises she will be checking regularly.