There were smiles all around the table. They stared at me happily while I hesitantly looked at the blob on my fork. It was light pink and rubbery, and I had bathed it in lemon juice, which came from a lemon tree in their back yard. I wasn’t able to communicate with them, but I felt a bond stronger than words. I looked down one more time at the “delicacy” on my fork, one I knew was too expensive for every day. I shoved the fork into my mouth before I could change my mind and the table erupted into shouts as I swallowed and pretended to enjoy what made them all so excited: pig’s snout.
Damiano smiled and started speaking to me in Italian, using exaggerated hand motions to help me understand, while Rita said one of the only English words she knew, “Beautiful, beautiful.” I looked at my mom for some hint of what they were saying, but she was too engrossed in her own conversation in Italian with Francesca. I laughed at Damiano who was now making pig noises, then looked around the table to see if there were any other food I could have that would remove the lemony taste from my mouth.
As if reading my mind, Yolanda appeared in carrying a huge pot of homemade spaghetti. As she served the pasta, I noticed the smile on her face and how freely everyone laughed. I realized that unlike in America, where we fit our meals in-between extracurricular activities and homework, in Italy, the family gathered to do more than just eat; they gathered to share and enjoy life. Dinner was an event. I never felt so welcomed, yet I had met these relatives just a few days before. They treated me as though they had loved me all my life. Yolanda gave me the largest portion of spaghetti. I knew they had little to share, that their lives were simple, yet it was clear that whatever they had was more than enough, and they wanted to share it all.
More laughter spread around the table as my sister attempted to eat the spaghetti. Rita grabbed her fork and taught her the correct way to twirl pasta using a fork and spoon. I looked to Noemi, one of my few connections to the English language, and told her that the pasta was delicious. Then I brought up a topic all teens share.
“Yes! Array Potter!” screamed Noemi from across the table in her broken English. “You must tell me about sixth book when comes out.” I nodded and said my favorite Italian word, “Si!” Then I smiled too, a gesture understood in all languages.
My mom nudged me and whispered, “Look at the feast they made us!” Glancing down the long table, I didn’t think there could be room for anything else. Tomatoes, mozzarella, roasted peppers, salami, pasta, eggplant, bread, and plates that I could not see stretched to the other end. I nodded to my mom and saw a tear in her eye, and I too got a little teary. Our connection with these people was stronger and deeper than we realized.
We had come to “meet” our Italian family. They were relatives but strangers; we expected a polite exchange of handshakes and nods. But we got something else entirely. We were embraced as family and treated like royalty. It was a welcome we did not think we deserved, but I guess we had been thinking like Americans. Our aunts and cousins treated us as if we were long-lost relatives who had come home at last. They seemed to believe in their hearts that we were truly the greatest people on Earth. I believe they behaved like this not simply because it was their culture but because they were good people. Their hearts were as big as their pots of spaghetti. Before our trip to Italy, they were simply names without faces, relatives so far away. Now they are family.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.