USA vs. USA



What happens sometimes is that – when you’re living in a foreign country, a country where you’re almost one of a kind – people want to pair you up with other stray members of your species. There’s another American who lives three towns over, they say. I’ll invite him over. You can chest bump about McDonald’s taking over the world. They think you must be lonely, that the call of your mother tongue will be music to your own ears; that being members of the same clade, you’ll be thrilled to sniff each other’s scent. I’m sure in some cases this is true; certainly, when Obama was elected, I itched for other Americans and every once in a while, I long for someone to back me up on the amazeballs virtues of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. When I was a new expat I needed other people like me. But I’ve been gone from home for a long time now. A strange thing happens when you’ve been gone a long time. If you’re like me, you become cat-like. That is to say, you don’t always like seeing other cats.

Now, look. I am a cat. I love being a cat. But the thing is that, even though cats are beautiful and weird and sleek and silly, sometimes cats scratch. And they crap where they’re not supposed to. And they throw up on your rug. And they talk really, really, really loud. In short, for all the great cats (like me and like you) out there, there are other cats that give cats a bad name. Especially when they’re out of their natural habitat; they get all wild and crazy, biting people’s ankles, running around in circles, shouting But honey why don’t this restaurant have Supersize?

It’s not their fault. That’s how they’re wired. But I don’t like it if other people associate me with random pee-spraying, thank you very much. Especially when I’ve worked so hard to remember that pee goes in the litter box.

So when Flora tells me: You, Mona, and Katarina come to my house Sunday night; my mom’s making a big dinner for my bosses and one of our favorite clients at the hotel. He’s from New York, like you the hair on my back lifts and rustles; hissssss. But then Flora says: He’s been living in Italy on and off since 1975. His name is Ted. And then it becomes a whole other jungle struggle; who’s the fitter feline? Because this happens, too, when you’ve been out of your habitat for a long time. You work hard to fit in. You get proud of yourself. And if you come across another of your species who’s on par with your level of fitness then, well, it becomes who’s assimilated better? Whose language skills are better? Who makes cats look better as a whole?Β  ME. I do. I know I do. Hissssss. Fffft. Fffffft. So, okay, then – bring it on. USA vs USA.

I’m ready.

Are you, homeslice?

Katarina, Mona and I arrive first. Flora’s mother has gone all out; fried rounds of garlic-flecked eggplant, fried zucchini, the celery fritters I adore, chickpeas swimming in broth, roasted peppers, home-brined artichokes, plates loaded with Fondi salami and prosciutto.

Then there are cheeses. There is crusty bread. There are sparkly things to drink. We’re still waiting for Flora’s bosses and Inferior Cat to show up so we can’t have any, but stand around the table chatting. Flora’s mother says: The roast chicken I made will get cold. What time did you tell them to arrive, Flora? And I want to say: It’s Inferior Cat’s fault. I know it is, even though that’s preposterous; if anyone is to be blamed for tardiness, 10 to 1 it’s an Italian. In my heart, I know Inferior Cat is probably the one saying: This is a dinner party. The invitation was for eight-thirty. Unless he truly has assimilated, in which case to him, 8:30 means any time before midnight. The very thought makes my blood run cold.

But then, the stragglers arrive; Flora’s bosses and Inferior Cat – oh, pardon me, TED. Ted is fifty-ish, bald, and has bright blue eyes. He cheek kisses. He’s wearing a light-colored short-sleeved button down. He reaches me and Katarina says: This is E from New York. Surprise!

Ted’s eyes narrow. The hair on the back of his neck lifts and rustles.

New York? he says – spits. I came all the way to Fondi to meet someone from New York.

I guess I did, too, I say – hiss. As the Italians watch, we circle each other; tails standing straight up, and I realize that this cat is like me; afeared of other cats in the wild. Years of fighting to prove our worth, years spent trying to prove that we know not to scratch the furniture. He sits farthest away from me, at the head of the table; fucking fine by me! I sit near the other end, next to Flora’s mother.

The meal commences. Clinking of silverware; the gurgle of wine being poured. The artichokes are beautifully sour and the Fondi sausage would ordinarily make me swoon if I weren’t stalking Ted. He speaks only to Katarina; asks her if the Russian men on the tours she guides hit on her, asks her what it’s like leading tour groups. His Italian grammar, I realize, is much better than mine – book-learned, I think with a spiteful smirk, not an autodidact raised by native Italian speakers like me. My accent, use of idioms, and sentence-level fluency are better, so there. I snorkle my Lambrusco; chat with Flora’s mother. She announces to the table:

I made the celery fritters for this little girl here – me – because I know she loves them! Guilty as charged; I try not to be a pig, help myself to only six. What food did you have specially made for you, TED? Oh, that’s right. None. Ted, who’s now talking about New York and makes some comment about at least Canadians have healthcare and I’m forced to snort in agreement; forced to remember that, at times, it’s good to be around people who understand you, so I listen to him a bit more carefully. Ted is soft-spoken. Ted is thoughtful. Ted first came to Italy in 1975 – the year my parents left. He’s not married. He’s originally from Texas.

The roast chicken comes out and it’s perfect; marinated in vinegar and wine and rosemary. And then Flora’s mother brings out a steaming pot of trippa alla romana – Roman-style tripe. Katarina immediately shrinks in her chair – Don’t worry, Rina says Flora’s mother, you don’t have to eat it – and I regard it curiously. I ate a lot of organ meat in Japan and loved it, but tripe was my least favorite; always generously left behind for me on the yakitori grill by the boys. I cast a glance at Ted.

Oh boy, he says, tripe.

Oh boy! I say. Roman-style tripe! Delicious!

It’s ladled onto our dishes; hot and covered in a velvety red sauce. I see the bumps on the pale white entrails but try not to.

Mm mm mmm, say Ted and I. Tripe is the best!

And I eat it. And it is absolutely, utterly divine. What can I tell you? Flora’s mother is a voodoo worker. Whereas all the barbecued tripe I ate in Japan was tough and tasteless, this tripe is tender, like veal, blanketed by a rich, spicy tomato sauce flecked with rings of pepperoncino. It’s incredible. There is no mouth orgasm to fake. I love this tripe. But just as I’m about to say so:

I love this tripe, says Ted.

I love it, too, I say. It’s the best tripe I’ve ever had. Just melts in your mouth.

I’m having seconds, says Ted. And he’s got me there, because even though I love Flora’s mother’s tripe, I’ve been cramming celery fritters and Fondi salami and roast chicken and chick peas into my face so by now, I’m so full I’m ready to pop. Ted, on the other hand, is built like a tanker; he’s like two of me, he can kill and eat more mice even if my Italian accent is better and I grew up listening to Lucio Battisti and i Pooh, damn him! I put down my fork, forced to concede defeat.

But then there’s more food. Pears, tiny yellow “tears of gold” plums, and gold-and-red cherries that look and taste more like small apricots on stems. It’s at about this point – weakened by sheer piggishness – that I pull in my claws, ask across the table: Ted, where do you live now?

New York, he says. Turtle Bay.

Get out, I say. My brother lives in Turtle Bay.

Oh, he says.

I used to live, well, all over, I guess, I say. The Village. Chinatown. Spanish Harlem. I lived on 10th and A. I also had a rent-stabilized apartment overlooking Washington Square Park.

And you left? he asks gently.

Well… I say, because that’s a whole other story – of writers’ block and Japan and eviction notices. The Italians are watching us intently, lobbing back and forth in a language that isn’t ours. Do they think we’ll start purring, talking cat-talk? Start nuzzling and batting yarn balls around the dining room together? Maybe I could go for a yarn ball session; New York did just legalize gay marriage after all. But not with this cat. Even if part of me wants to yell: Let’s cut the shit, homeboy. This is stupid. Let’s get real and show these peeps what American-English dialect sounds like. We’re speaking Italian in Italy in front of Italians because neither of us will leave the kitty basket. Because neither of us wants to gut a mouse in public. Because we’ve just worked too hard.

*

Near midnight, and everyone’s going home; we all walk out to our cars and Ted takes care not to walk too close to me for fear I’ll start rolling around in the dirt. Cheek kisses. Thank you so much; the dinner was exquisite, Flora. Your mother is a legend. And then it’s Ted’s and my turn to cheek kiss.

Nice to meet you, I say in my better-pronounced, more natural Italian.

Nice to meet you, too, he says in his better-studied Italian.

And maybe, if we’d met back home, if we’d discovered randomly that we’ve spent a lot of time in Italy, living in the same province, that we both speak Italian, with no one to impress, nothing to prove, we could be friends. We could reminisce about the grapes of the region, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the way Italians park like lunatics, how many times we’ve lost at a game of Let’s Screw the Foreigner. But we’re not home. We’re here in Italy; him, bearing the scars of almost 40 years of being misunderstood and me, the daughter of Italian immigrants, never quite sure where I belonged. So kisses on the cheek under a sky full of stars. Arrivederci. Arrivederci. And we go our separate ways. Two cats pissing in the night.

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39 Comments Add yours

  1. Sara Rosso says:

    *clap clap* I’m a cat, too, so I won’t make the hair rise on your neck, but I loved this encounter.

    “What food did you have specially made for you, TED? Oh, that’s right. None.” made me laugh out loud πŸ™‚

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Ted actually does seem like a really nice person; maybe if we meet again, we’ll be able to put down the defenses. I hope so! It’d be nice to be able to commiserate with another American about how awesome tripe is πŸ˜‰

  2. Phil says:

    It’s been hard for me to keep up with blogs I normally read, but wow, I’m glad I took the time to read this. HIlarious. I’ve also experienced the same cat phenomenon!

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Ffft ffffft rrrrrrrowr! Thanks for your compliments as always, Phil!

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Thank you!!

  3. Katja says:

    Love this. LOVE. Much as I like my English colleagues, I hate the way they stomp all over this town and then get pissy that people don’t truly accept them. And I *really* hate that I get dragged into that by virtue of being English. I’m trying really, really hard not to pee outside the litter box, OK?!

    (PS – Don’t suppose you want an actual cat, do you? Like, a real, live, 12-week-old kitten? I have one who needs a home and I’m getting desperate. (I’m only half-joking here …) )

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      I want that real, live, 12-week old kitten more than anything else in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’m allowed to have one in this apartment, or if it’s wise for me to take one in given my lifestyle. What color is your kitty? I’m practically crying right now because I want it so much.

      1. Katja says:

        She’s a grey tabby with a white chin and she’s called Tosca officially, but I always call her Sweetpea. She was given to me by a friend, who is an evil genius: at this rate I’m just not going to be able to leave Calabria ever. Kinda suits me, but there is the small problem of having neither job nor place to live after the end of July …

      2. ieatmypigeon says:

        I love her already! But I travel too much to have an animal, as much as I long for one. Also, I’m just one cat away from becoming a cat lady. I keep telling Katarina that we ought to give Flora a cat just so that we can come play with it. Hmmm….

  4. Frostinator says:

    Not fair to post pictures of food I can’t have. Now I’m starving. Thanks πŸ˜‰

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Say the word and any non-perishable item you want is yours. I think I know of a little boy (and a momma) who might like a certain kind of baby biscuit….

  5. Michi says:

    I think this was one of my favorite posts yet. πŸ™‚

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Mine, too, Michi. Thank you!

  6. Paul says:

    Jeez… I hate speaking non-english with other English speakers. I’d have lapsed into New Yawk halfway through the second sentence and never looked back. And of course there are circumstances where you are exempt from all pissing contests: marrying a local, being famous and being insane. Think my future practically neighbor Johnny Depp worries about these things?

    Also, I’m hungry.

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      It felt stupid to me, too, Paul – to tell you the truth, I had been half-looking forward to meeting him, especially when I heard that he was a fellow tabby cat. But he started off right away with the Italian and barely looked at me so I went with it. And towards the end of the evening I would have liked to talk to him real-to-real, apart from the others, but he stayed away from me. I mean, I suppose he could have stuck to just Italian to be polite to our hosts who don’t speak English, but the look he gave me when we were introduced said otherwise.

      Ma che mangiata aoooooo…..

  7. Isabella says:

    Ese tipo necesita un enema!!! Que risas este cuento!! Me lo he gozado muchisimo. Pienso deberias mandarlo a una revista. Me encanto la alegoria con los gatitos!!!
    Buenisimo el articulo y deliciosa la comida!

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Thanks, but I’m confused by your decision to leave this comment in Spanish. I think this marks a first for our online relationship. And I’m still thinking about the trippa! I think even you would like it….

  8. Pridesing says:

    I enjoy the pictures of food prepared in ways I don’t get to see here. The comparison to cats was genius and overall a great flow.

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      I see myself as a tabby cat, like Leia. Except less of a bitch.

  9. Erica says:

    Ooh I totally understand where you are coming from! Even just trying to be ambassadors when other Americans piss all over the place and you’re trying to clean up the image a bit.

    Oh man, this was purr-fect? ❀

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      I’m plenty capable of complaining about where I am, but I did that back home, too, and I’m conscious of the fact that I choose to live where I do. When I was young, my parents often did the disgruntled immigrant thing and complained a lot about America and Americans; it left a deep imprint, made me confused about where I belonged (wasn’t I American? And if so, were they talking about me?), so I try to be considerate of the locals and confine my complaining to the privacy of my litterbox. After all, I’m a guest wherever I go. You don’t complain about the china when someone invites you to dinner.

  10. The food in the pixes looked delicious!! Except whichever is tripe. I don’t think I can eat that one. πŸ™‚

    I so enjoyed reading your blog. It was enthralling and got me curious to see what happened next. Is this the end of “Ted” or will your Italian friends try to invite him over again?

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      No pictures of the tripe, unfortunately! I took the pictures of the antipasti before the other guests arrived and by the time the tripe was served, we were all at the table so it didn’t seem appropriate to get the camera out again. And I believe this is the end of Ted for this year; he comes to Italy once a year for a couple of weeks and he left yesterday. But I promise you, the tripe was amazing. If you are ever in the situation where you’re being served Roman-style tripe at an Italian home and don’t think you can make it, just take my word for it; you can. Delicious!

  11. unbravegirl says:

    I loved this and totally get it. I am almost always the less fit cat in these scenarios (I hardly ever speak the language), but I still always feel very competitive when meeting another American in a situation like this. And I desperately want people to like me more because, well, I can chase a yarnball like no one’s business, so there.

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      I’m especially fond of stretching and curling up. Tough life!

  12. Nick says:

    I’ve finished work and was about to leave and I thought, ah, I’ll just check out Liv’s latest. And then my heart sank when I saw how long it was because I want to go home.

    And I devoured it. All of it. With pleasure. One of your best – thanks!

  13. Angela says:

    Loved it, I totally hear you, that’s why I try to avoid Italians abroad, they scarily meet all the stereotypes! πŸ˜‰

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      As soon as I hear an American accent, the hair on my back rises… until I smell them and see whether or not they’re of the rug-pissing variety or if they’re a tabby cat like me.

  14. Amanda says:

    Oh, this is just perfection! I love the analogies, and the humor. And, while I can’t really relate, having never lived abroad for a long time in a country that doesn’t speak English, I get it. Great storytelling!

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Thank you, Amanda. I’m really glad you enjoyed the piece!

  15. I am not sure which I enjoyed more, the description of the delicious food or the interaction between two cats pissing in the night.

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Me, I enjoyed the food more. That tripe… πŸ˜€

  16. Guppy says:

    Loved this one.

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Love YOU.

  17. Sam says:

    Best blog I’ve read all week! Hilarious. Thanks for the laughs.

    1. ieatmypigeon says:

      Thank you for the compliment!

  18. Very well-played, sitting next to mom…

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