Perfect Strangers

“Listen,” says my mother. “I think you need to go over and visit Zia Malvina.”

Zia Malvina is my mother’s aunt. In the summers, she lives across the hall from my Nonna Lucia’s old apartment – the place I am now calling “home.” Zia Malvina is 80, and her husband passed away ten years ago. She has two grown children – my mother’s cousins, Flora and Giovanni. She comes to the beach with Flora, who lives in Rome. I haven’t seen Malvina or Flora since the first day we met last week, when Malvina heard me grunting to open the rusted garage door and they immediately invited me over for dinner. Tender roast veal in a heady broth of plum tomatoes, wine, carrots, celery and rosemary; I inhaled juicy slice after juicy slice, and as I chewed, they asked: What are you doing here in Italy? How long are you staying? Your Italian is quite good. You understand us, don’t you? You’ll have more veal, won’t you? Where were you living before – your mother said China? Oh. Japan. Mamma mia. What were you doing – teaching English? How about that?

After dinner, Flora showed me where to throw out the recycling and as we walked back to the apartment building, we ran into one of her childhood friends, Elvira, who has a summer apartment in a building down the street. If Flora and Zia Malvina asked me 100 questions, Elvira asked a thousand. Your Italian is very good. What do you mean it’s no good? You even form the phrases very well. How old are you? Well, you don’t look it. How is Isa? How is Roberto? Where do you work? What do you do? How long are you staying? Where did you live before? Mamma mia, even in Japan? What were you doing in Japan? Did you like teaching? The students must have been very respectful and polite, weren’t they? What do they say in Japan when they’re hungry? What do they say when they’re angry? She’s a nice girl, Flora. Compliments to your family.

Interesting this – compliments to your family. We are related, certainly. But the truth is, I don’t know my mother’s family. There was always an ocean between us, and 30 years ago that meant staticky telephone calls and snail mailed letters. We seldom visited Italy, and after my grandfather fell ill to Parkinson’s, they didn’t come visit us either. Each Christmas, there were large cardboard packages; scrawled over with ITALIA in black marker, filled with salami and Kinder chocolates and Nutella and notes to my mother, scribbled on paper thin as leaf skin. In school, I watched my classmates write For Nana on their arts and crafts projects; listened to them talk about how Grandpa Jack was coming to pick them up from Girl Scouts. The few times we did make it to Italy, my classmates sneered: Rich girl. Spoiled. Snob. I was ashamed, and found it difficult to enjoy myself in my mother’s beautiful country, to take advantage of the few times I met her parents.

My grandfather died when I was 20. My grandmother passed in May of 2007 – a few months after I moved to Japan. After her death, something shifted. I’d felt little when my grandfather died apart from sympathy for my mother, but my grandmother’s death hit me differently, mostly likely because I had spent a few days with her and my uncle in Italy couple of years before – three adults together for the first time. She’d told me stories of when I was a child, from a time before I could remember, and when she drove us to town, she shouted at the other drivers: Aou! A nervous woman, my grandmother – like my mother, like myself. For the first time, I saw a glimmer of family connection.  But then, less than two years later, she was gone before I could make it back to Europe. That’s the thing. You always think you have more time.

In Japan, I watched my young students’ grandparents come to class to pick them up; watched the children write お祖ーちゃんヘ on the crafts we made in class. I befriended another teacher at my school – an Australian woman who had followed her son to Japan to be with her grandchildren. I was in awe of her courage, and the strength of a grandmother’s love.

My mother told me so many stories about her family while I was growing up. Her father had loved to dress in the latest fashions; had driven a red Alfa Romeo Rover; had listened to Mussolini’s speeches on record. Her mother had spent her days in the kitchen; had worn the same hairdo her entire life; had made the best eggplant parmigiana in the world. There were cousins – so many cousins. Federica and Caterina. Angela and Mario. Giovanni, with whom she’d written “baccalà*” on a flat piece of stone before burying it in the sand for some hapless loser to find. Her own grandmother, for whom she was named. Her little brother Enrico, who had listened to classical music when all of the other kids were listening to pop; who liked dinosaurs when all the other kids liked cars; who didn’t play soccer when all of the other kids did. Like me.

*codfish; fool

“Your grandparents loved you so much,” my mother said over and over. “How they would have spoiled you if we had been able to see them more often! Your grandmother called you la principessa – do you remember?”

I don’t.

I’m in Italy now, hoping to put faces to stories. I try to see who looks like who, try to sniff out the DNA markers that glisten in all of our veins. I try to feel a connection to stories that happened to someone else.


In the mornings, I’m up early and go down to the seashore for a swim, to get Beach Fever out of my system. Then I’m back in Nonna Lucia’s empty apartment to rinse off the sand, then  mess around on twitter work on my thesis and travel articles to pitch. I turn on the gas and make myself some soup. I turn off the gas and head out to the market. I buy a wedge of parmigiano reggiano, a hunk of pungent salami, a bag of crisp green beans. Back home, I listen to my neighbors’ little girl scream through the ceiling. She doesn’t cry, that child, so much as shriek with passion. Long shrieks. She’ll be a singer. A politician. A woman who knows what she wants.

My mother’s question blinks through a gchat box: “Have you seen anyone today?”

“No,” I type.

“Not Zia Malvina? Not Flora?”

“No. It’s all quiet here.”

“So go and see Zia. I’m sure she’s lonely while Flora is out.”

“I don’t want to disturb her.”

“What disturbing? Who? But you’re crazy. They’re family. Go, go, they’ll think you’re rude.”

Rude is the last thing I want to be – even if I’m suddenly so shy I can barely breathe. So I change out of my work clothes – that is to say, my pajamas – and I tidy up; wash my face, comb my hair, and all the rest. I put on my shoes. They have sand in them, so I try on a different pair, but those hurt. I put on the first pair again. I make sure I have my keys and then I’m in the hallway in front of Zia Malvina’s door. I check my watch. And then I knock.


Zia Malvina’s son, Giovanni, and his 5 year-old daughter, Stella, have come from Colleferro for the day, so there is going to be a nice little lunch at 1:30. I am invited, too. I watch youtube videos type at my thesis until lunch time, and the anticipation builds. What will Zia Malvina make? The roast veal she made last week was so savory, so sublime. I can’t wait, and the keys clack, clack, clack and, finally, I can shut down my comp and – still on Japan time – I cross the hall at 1:29. Keys chink in the lock, and the tumbler groans.

“Ah, E,” says Malvina. “Come in, come in. Flora and Giovanni and Stella are still down at the beach.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll come in for a bit and we can have a chat.” My great aunt grins and I can see her tongue pushing pink through the gap of her missing front tooth.

We go to the kitchen, and my mouth moistens. The stove is piled high with delicate fried chicken cutlets, layered between sheets of kitchen paper to blot up the oil. There is a bag of dried farfalle on the table, next to a basket of brilliant red plum tomatoes and next to that, balls of slick, wet mozzarella di bufala. Malevola tells me: We’ll have pasta al pomodoro, but like I make it – not the way you find it in a restaurant.

I ask: How do you make it? Do you peel the tomatoes first? I never do.

She says: I peel some of them. And then I strain some of them – I leave the seeds in only some. Now do you eat mozzarella di bufala? You have it in America, don’t you? It really is the best.

High-pitched shrieks echo in the hallway and the doorbell begins to buzz – long zaps, then short. Long, then short.

“Ah,” says Malvina. “Here is grandma’s little beauty.”

The door creaks open and the child bursts in – triumphant, sandy and wet from the Tyrrhenian sea. She is hopping, she is jumping, she is shouting Yes! and No! and No no no! when Flora tells her: Go into the bathroom so we can hose you down.

Yes, go, says Giovanni – my mother’s favorite cousin, the cousin of the baccalà.

No no no!

Or I will count to three. Then I will be angry.

She slumps in defeat, and is whisked away to the bathroom by Flora. Giovanni sits with me at the dining room table and the questions start: How is your mother? How many places have you lived? How was the food in Japan? When you cook, what kind of food do you cook? When did you leave home? Your parents are pretty fantastic, aren’t they, to have allowed you to move out of the house at 18. You are a miniature Isa, aren’t you?

Stella returns – swaddled in a white I ♥ DC t-shirt.

Stella, says Giovanni. Say hello to your cousin, E. Stella’s brow knits – she’s fully aware that she has no cousins named E, let alone old ones with an American accent.

Her mother is my cousin, Giovanni says. You met her before, when you were three – my Cousin Isa. This is her daughter.

Pleased to meet you, Stella says. Then: Babbo, I want pasta but without any sauce. Tell Nonna that I don’t want any sauce.

Tell her yourself.

Stella throws her head back and bellows: Nonna! I want my pasta white!

Yes, my treasure, says Malvina.

The pasta comes – slippery with hunks of ripe red tomato and swirls of olive oil. Then come the cutlets – perfectly golden on each side. The mozzarella di bufala is thick and sour. Behind me, cartoons on the TV flicker, and I can see Stella’s dark eyes widen each time the frames shift.

Look, says Giovanni. He shows me two jars of honey and a bottle of honey-infused grappa that he brought back from his recent vacation in the Dolomites mountains. Immediately, Stella begins to clap her hands: I want the honey! I want it I want it I want it! She is allowed to open the jars herself, and we applaud: Brava. Then, Giovanni opens the bottle of grappa.

Stella says: I want some grappa, too. Me, too. Me, too!

Flora says: You won’t like it.

Stella says: I will, I will. I want some!

Malvina: Smell it first.

Stella: Mmmm. Goooooooood!

Flora: So have a little taste. Just wet your tongue.

Flora takes a plastic cup and tips a little grappa inside – Now hold it firm – and hands it to her niece. Stella tosses her head back and lets the grappa drip into her mouth. Her eyes and nose immediately squinch – angry, like a wet cat’s.

It’s gross! Yuck!

Malvina says: What did Zia tell you? What did she say?

Stella’s face is red, her tongue gasping for air.

Malvina says: Eat some honey. Have some water.

Stella gulps the water gratefully, then shoves her spoon into the jar of honey. She swallows, then double dips. She licks the lid. She snuggles in her grandmother’s arms.

Giovanni says: Now the adults will have some grappa. Everybody, cin cin.

We raise our plastic cups and down the hatch it goes. My throat closes; my chest burns.

“Good stuff,” we all say.

Flora pats her belly: “Yes. Warm.”


Giovanni tells me a story about my mother, from when they were little:

Your grandmother made us dinner, he says, and there was some meat that your mother didn’t like. Your mother – she had a strong character back then, you know? Well, she took the meat and she threw it in the dish water. But your grandmother found it and made her eat it anyway.

I nod, listening for the first time to a story about my mother’s childhood where she was not the heroine. My amusement warms me like the grappa.

I ask: What sort of woman was my grandmother?

Zia Malvina says: She was very particular. She liked things done a certain way. It was so nice back then, you know. When we all used to come to the beach. Your grandparents lived in the apartment upstairs, then there was a family called Vitellino. And then there was us, and then there was your great-grandmother Lucia, with your father, in the apartment where you live now. Your mother and Giovanni were children, and they used to run up and down, up and down. We all used to knock on each other’s doors. But people keep dying. It just isn’t the same anymore.

Stella has a notebook. She puts it on the table, in front of me.

Look. LOOK.

The pages flip under her tiny fingers. Colors and shapes leap out at my grappa-burned eyes.

I made this house, she says. But Zia drew this one. I drew all the houses red because that was the only color I had. And then I drew this bow, and this one. And I wrote my name, but Nonna says I did it backwards.

Suddenly, I’m back in Japan, reading giant picture books with my squirming students. I ask her: What color is this? How many flowers did you draw? How many pink flowers? How many blue flowers? And then, Who lives in this house?

The solemn reply: Mamma, Babbo, me, Nonna, Zia Flora, and all of my friends from school.

Well, I say: That must be a really big house.

Malvina draws the little girl into her lap, rests her chin on top of her head. See how smart is Nonna’s little beauty! You can never say that she is ugly, because she isn’t. Never say that to her grandmother! She is Nonna’s little beauty! I live for my little granddaughter.

Stella says: Babbo. I want to stay the night with Nonna and Zia. Can’t I stay the night with Nonna and Zia? Please please please. I will be good.

There is discussion. Stella must call her mother on the phone to ask permission. She maneuvers her father’s iPhone with ease, sliding tiny fingertips around the screen. Her mother answers the phone, and Stella puts on a grave voice: Pronto. Hello, mamma. I have an important question to ask you.

And she is allowed. Her father will go home to Colleferro tonight, but she will stay here in Terracina with her grandmother and her auntie. They will read books and play together – just the girls.

I tell Stella: How nice it will be to stay with Nonna.

Stella nods, and Malvina beams; her tongue fighting to burst past the gap in her teeth.

My little beauty, she says. Nonna’s little beauty.

It’s half four, and I need to get back to work. They send me home with leftover chicken cutlets and a couple of balls of mozzarella di bufala. Flora says she will take me to the Temple of Jove tomorrow night. We’ll go when the lights are out. We’ll look down at the sea. She says on Thursday, she will also take me in her car to the Orizzonte to get more things for the apartment. But tomorrow evening – the temple at night. I’m so excited by the prospect that I’m blushing, shifting the mozzarella between my hands as I try to stifle a cretinous grin.

Come by if you need anything, says Malvina. You’re family. Don’t be shy to knock on our door!

Thank you, I say. Thank you for everything.

The thud of the heavy door behind me; the sweat of the mozzarella beading my fingers. Alone again, my gratitude and excitement fade; I’m suddenly somber, wishing I could remember what it was like to be called principessa. But how silly to miss something you never had. How silly to feel sorry for things that no one could help. So I put the mozzarella away. I let the excitement and the gratitude flood my chest again. And then I get back to work.

0 Replies to “Perfect Strangers”

  1. I was blessed knowing three [my paternal grandfather had passed by the time I was born] of my grandparents, and didn’t live more than two hours from any of them until I moved away to school. Having family constantly within reach was something that I admittedly took for granted, and have only just started learning the opposite side of the coin [closest relative is six hours away. Closest relative I *want* to see is closer to eight]. I’m supremely glad you’re getting to know the ones you’ve found 🙂 ♥

    1. Thanks, Kao! It’s a very interesting time. We saw my father’s family a lot more frequently, but even so, it was maybe once a year, or once every couple of years. What can you do? Them’s the breaks.

  2. That was beautiful! Tears in my eyes at the end.

  3. Your posts are treasures for you own children one day! Thank you for another beautiful story!

  4. That was wonderful!

    I want to create a relief organization that sends Italian grandmas around the world to cook for the malnourished in that way that only they can. I’ve never known one to say “you can’t stay, I don’t have enough food”.

    1. Thanks, Paul! I think you might have something there – the Nonna Initiative.

  5. What a beautiful, beautiful post. Thank you.

  6. OK, so if I read this right, you do one of two things. Get dressed and go to the market in ‘normal’ clothes, then get home and change *back* into your pajamas. Or you visit the market in your pajamas. Either way, I am impressed.

    And kinda jealous, actually. My extended family (pretty small anyway) is not that close (by which I mean intimate), and even my immediate family live very independent lives from one another.

    Oh yeah, and another thing. Blog posts that long don’t normally hold my attention (a sad state of affairs, I know), and in most cases I wouldn’t even bother starting them. You’re an exception, and you kept me there all the way – thanks!

    1. My mother’s family is enormous! Both of her parents were one of 7-8 children, so that translates to her having a billion cousins and now, two billion second cousins. As I’ve never met 90% of them it’s hard to fight shyness at times or latch on to the idea that we are, in fact, related, but it’ll be fun to experiment.

      Let me know if you want to borrow my Zia Malevola for some home cooking. I’ll see what can be arranged.

      P.S. Re: long blog posts – you’re very kind.

      1. You’re welcome – I meant it! (even if it did come off as kinda pretentious… sorry about that)

        BUT I notice you dodged the pajamas, as it were!

        1. You’re referring to the traditional graduate student’s work uniform? Were I living 100 years ago I think it would be acceptable to head to market in it. Back then it would have been a long sweeping robe. How times change.

          I believe the traditional graduate students’ work uniform is strikingly similar to what you freelance writers wear to the office, no? Location Independent Work = Totally Awesome Pajama Party. Someone pass the chips.

  7. Your wonderful story reminds me of many years ago I stayed for a few days with a family in Genoa, they had a spare room for informal boarders. The food, simple,tasty,and fresh converted me to Italian cooking. Most refreshing experience ever while traveling in Europe.

Leave a Reply

one × 3 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.