Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dinner with the neighbors: round 4 (I think)

I wrote this about a week ago, but didn't get around to finishing it till today. Pretend it just happened.

So yesterday afternoon as I was getting ready to leave for babysitting our bell rang. Our bell never rings except for the postman and people who somehow get in (the neighbors let them in) and try to sell me something or take a survey. I peered through the peephole and saw Anna, our neighbor from downstairs.

I debated whether or not to answer the door because I know that she only makes the journey up the stairs to invite us down for a visit. But this is an old building with walls as soundproof as tissue paper and doors that were never intended to keep out wind, rain or snow. I swear they actually amplify the sound. She knew I was there so I had to answer.

I opened the door and damn if she didn't look a little disappointed and surprised. You know, like she was kind of hoping that I wouldn't be there and she wouldn't have to try and make me understand what she wanted.

So there we were. Me looking at her fearing a torrent of Italian that would sail over my head and she looking at me as if I were purposely refusing to learn Italian so that I couldn't talk to her.

But we bravely smiled at each other, united in our desire to make this exchange as brief and painless as possible. She asked a question with a bright and brittle smile. For a moment I thought she was asking if I wanted to read a book tonight, then realized that was a silly question and she had said libero, not libro. She wanted to know if we were free tonight. I said yes we were, with what I hoped was a pleased look on my face. Because I knew what was coming.

Would we come down to their apartment about (at this point she made a show of counting out 8 fingers) 8 o'clock? I said that we would be happy to come down. She gave a little jump, said "va bene" and scampered back down the stairs. I turned back into our apartment and ran through the conversation again in my mind to be sure I really understood what had happened.

At the appointed time Leif and I walked down the stairs with a bottle of wine tucked under one arm and knocked on their door. They're always surprised when we bring them something, although Florentine (Italian) custom pretty much requires that we arrive with some small gift for our hostess. We usually eat in the kitchen but tonight she pointed to another room and said that we were eating there because Milvia and Luigi were coming to dinner as well.

Milvia and Luigi are our landlords. Milvia is also Anna's sister. I used to be terrified of both of them, but in the last two years I've found that Luigi isn't as scary as his bushy eyebrows and growly voice make him seem. He loves to say outrageous things and then watch me to see if I get it. He makes funny faces at me just  to see me laugh. Hard to be scared of him anymore. Milvia on the other hand is the power in the relationship. One of those matriarchal women who can silence a room with a look. She made me sit next to her and I'm happy to say that today I'm pretty sure she's done trying to scare the shit out of me and may actually like me. As much as she can like a foreigner.

It was a typical dinner with these neighbors. Naturally a prosecco or  wine of some kind and a little snack to start. (this time salami and ripe figs on Tuscan bread, and another type of costini I think with liver) Then the first dish with the appropriate wine. (penne with a salsiccia ragu and Chianti) The second dish with wine as well. (basically a pot roast with peas and carrots and more of the Chianti) At the end there was a cheese plate which we used to finish off the second bottle of wine. Naturally the meal wouldn't be complete without dessert so there was a pear cake with Vin Santo (a sweet dessert wine.)

With the pre-dinner drink I sat on the couch with a death grip on my glass praying that no one would speak directly to me or ask me a question. We moved to the table and I relaxed a little, mostly I think because I didn't have to worry about dropping my glass if someone surprised me with a question. By the second dish I was becoming comfortably numb and I like to think that I was actually contributing to the conversation. Maybe only once or twice, but that's once or twice more than the last time we had dinner with them, so I'm improving like a hundred percent. By the dessert wine I was feeling almost a little too good so when Anna asked if I wanted coffee I said "Yes, thank you." Inside I was saying "Oh God, yes, coffee, the stronger the better!" She was just happy because I always say no and I think she's worried that her coffee isn't up to my stringent standards.

It was looking good for me. I'd had a bit more than I should to drink, but that's pretty much par for most of the dinners we share in Italian homes. I actually filled my own glass the whole night so I didn't drink as much as usual. The coffee was delicious and as I was sighing my contentment Anna jumped up and said "Limoncello!" and sprinted out of the room.

Crap. She makes her own and it's damn good. And she knows that I enjoy a glass every once in awhile. So every time I'm there, no matter what time of day, she brings out her beautiful bottle of limoncello. Even the smallest glass of this stuff is potent. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. By the time I finished my tiny glass I felt like my chair was floating on water.

We both had to work in the morning so we got  up to say our good-byes. We've reached the point in our neighbor-ship where we do the hug and cheek kissing things. It makes me feel very sophisticated because I come from Minnesota where hugs are brief and sideways and kissing is reserved for the elderly, in case you don't see them again.

One of the nice things about eating at the neighbors is that when dinner is finished and we leave we don't have to climb on our bikes and navigate through traffic to get home. We just have to climb the stairs. Which sounds easy till we've had just a tad bit too much to drink. I make liberal use of the handrail, something I normally don't do because it's pretty dirty and I don't know what exactly it might be dirty with. We arrived safely at our own apartment. I looked at Leif and asked "I did OK?" He looked at me, kissed me and said "Yes, you did OK." A nice way to end the night.

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