‘my fellow italians’

In every deserted corner of this world you will find a good-humored Italian man with an espresso machine.

I WAS LOOKING for an espresso. Christmas morning in Reykjavik, just a few years ago. Pale yellow light over the corrugated roofs of the city, wintry gusts of snowflakes in the face. Festive lights blinked from windows but the temperature was minus something and there were no other souls about.

Our daughter Anna was with me, then about eight years old. We hiked up to the Hallgrimskirkja and posed with the statue of Leifur Eriksson. Then we came down one of the long side streets until we found a cafe that was open. The windows were fogged up, and it seemed like each opening of its door produced a puff of warm white welcoming steam. The place was packed. Standing room only with holiday revelers in new jackets and scarves. I pushed my way up to the bar and ordered an espresso and a hot chocolate.

The barista was a white-haired man with light blue eyes and a tight round Frank Sinatra face. Instead of making my espresso or Anna’s hot chocolate though, he just stared at me. He stared and stared, and then smiled a bit.

Then the old man spoke spoke. “Buon giorno, signore.”

The words startled me. “Giorno,” I answered back.

He nodded and winked at me. ” Ha! I knew you were one of us,” he said in Italian. “With that face!”

I reached up and touched my nose.

“Daddy, what language is that man speaking?” Anna tugged at my sleeve.

Italian,” I answered, still a bit dumbfounded.

“Wait. He’s Italian? But what’s he doing here in Iceland? And how do you understand him?”

“Oh, Anna,” I said rubbing my brow. “Italians like us are just everywhere.”

It’s true. In every deserted corner of this world you will find a good-humored Italian man with an espresso machine. For me, these generous gentlemen are the equivalent of those famous Estonian Houses that anyone can find scattered from London to New York to Sydney. After he served us our espresso and hot chocolate, the Reykjavik barista took a break from his Christmas duties to sit with us for a while in the cafe and just chat. Even though my Italian is crude, he was so happy that I could understand him.

“I just have to speak it sometimes,” he said. “Living up here,” he glanced out the foggy window. “I just have to!”

“But how did you get here?” I asked Sinatra.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Oh, you know exactly how I got here. A woman!”

It really made me smile. I understood him too well. And there is something about the language that is so soothing. I enjoy the popping cadence of it, its flavor, its emotion, more so than English sometimes. In Estonia, I listen to the radio broadcasts from Rome while I boil pots of casarecce pasta, though Anna prefers linguini. I don’t understand it all, but I do find it comforting. It speaks to some hidden part of the self, real or imagined. I am a closeted Italian, I think. I may have ancestors from half a dozen countries, but never has an Irishman recognized me on the street and thrust a pint of Guinness into my hands. Yet walk into a cafe in Reykjavik on Christmas morning, and I will be recognized. Nothing left to do but sit with “my fellow Italians” and hear their long stories out.

This identity became more precious to me living in Estonia. As I watched with some horror as my first-born daughter and her mother picked apart a container of sült one evening long ago, I felt I needed a cultural balance to all of the gingerbread, blood sausage, leelo singing, and saunas in our lives. To bring them into my tribe. They may now be the only Estonian children who will willingly consume blocks of Pecorino Romano cheese or who know what limoncello is. A few years ago, I even traveled to Bari, on the Adriatic coast, to meet with relatives. Cousin Vincenzo! Cousin Lorenzo! Santina, Gianfranco, Pamela, Michele, Antonella and Lello! And so many others.

My mother and father came along, as did Marta, our eldest daughter. I taught her how to cross herself in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas and how to eat her bread with olive oil with a dash of salt and pepper. I did all of these things without ever thinking, and yet she had to learn them for the first time from watching her father.

It’s not much to pass on, I thought as I crossed myself, but it’s still something.

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