I once read that the average Italian consumes 60 pounds of pasta per year. After reflecting on this, I conceded that it was probably true, but in my family at least, it was some top-notch pasta.
You see, I didn’t know that boxed pasta even existed until about fourth grade, when I saw a friend’s mother prepare it. Up until that point, I had subsisted solely on my Nonna’s homemade pastas. I would sit in her kitchen at that little wooden table and learn how to make all types of pastas, from gnocchi to orecchiette (or “little hats,” as my siblings and I liked to call them). The tomato sauce I ate was homemade, boiled on my Nonna’s gas stove. I would watch the steam rise from the pot and make the kitchen air hazy in the summertime.
Sometimes the adults would talk in Italian so that their words would float over our heads, literally and figuratively. To me, the Italian words were background noise, only noticeable when they were no longer there. The sound of my Nonna screaming into the phone and RAI Italia on the television created the theme song of my childhood. And of course, I grew up thinking that if you really needed to make a point, just wave your hands for emphasis. I still use my hands to talk. In fact, it’s hard for me to gauge someone who doesn’t use hand gestures when they talk. You can have an entire conversation without anyone opening their mouth, simply through the use of hand gestures. Imagine if you had to talk to someone who never moved their eyebrows when they spoke. That’s what it seems like.
Oftentimes, when I was younger – and even now – I was told that I was too loud. In my feeble defense, I needed to be the loudest in order for my needs to be met. At the bare minimum, I’m competing with two other people on a regular basis to make my voice heard. Think of it as vocally climbing your way up the totem pole. Well, at least I’ve never been the student who was told to speak up more in class.
And yes, conforming to yet another stereotype, my clan is extremely family-oriented. People whose family gatherings consist of fewer than 10 people, or who can count their cousins without thinking too hard, baffle me. I can’t relate. My family gatherings are always a mess of people. We’re a little too loud, it’s a little too crowded, but there’s enough good wine and great food to feed everyone twice over. My siblings and I happen to be right in the middle of the cousins’ age ranges. Some are out of college and others I still find myself tripping over if I forget to look down. The adults still talk over us in Italian, although most of us can understand what’s being said now.
Ultimately, I’m an Italian-American, with all the tradition and history that comes along with it. I cook with my Nonna and sing “Tanti Auguri a Te” at birthdays. And if I’m picky about my espresso, so be it.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.