Thursday, August 27, 2009

And he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed to the ground.

Part 1 - Somewhere near Tadotsu

(and yes, it's OK if you don't know where Tadotsu is...)

I'm back to Tokyo after a two-day trip to Shikoku. It was clear from the moment the plane took off that it would be an interesting journey: I was the only non Japanese on the plane, which made it also very easy for my local contacts to spot me at the exit gate.
It turned out that I was the first Italian my contacts had met, even though one of them had lived in the US for some time. I was surprised to find out that even in provincial Shikoku the list of Italian words every one seems to know is the same as the one in the US, just with a slightly different intonation (pasuta, pitsa, Borare, Reonarudo, supagetti, mandorino, Arumani, Besupa). As usual, when the last item on the list is uttered, inevitably comes an uncomfortable silence followed by the question: “And where in Italy are you from?” My answer, “Sicily,” this time was not followed by the usual “Mafia!!” response which, in all honesty, disappointed me. People say
“Mafia,” I do my usual schtick and then we move on, or we face another uncomfortable silence. Finally, as if waking up, one of my fellow travelers surprised me with a mostly unusual reaction: “Aru Kapone!!, Aru Kapone!!” pointing a finger to our driver and making a machine-gun sound. Let me render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s: he also knew that Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, and that there is a strait between it and the Boot.

My hosts were very concerned with my lunch, what and where I would eat it. All my local contacts knew about Jews was that we are very finicky eaters, but as soon as they heard I am from Italy the proverbial light went off and they told each other, almost at unison “Itaria ryoori deshoo ka?, Should we have Italian?” Those who know me surely have heard me saying the following at least once: “I don't eat Italian food in restaurants, except pizza.” Not only because if I really crave Italian food I can make it myself, but mainly because it never tastes like mom’s. That “Itaria ryoori” sounded like “doom and destruction” to my ears. We were driving in a narrow road, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice pads and Japanese-looking tiny wooden houses. I dreaded the meeting with Italian cuisine as reinterpreted by some Japanese chef in rural Shikoku, but my two hosts were aglow, pleased with their idea, undoubtedly the perfect solution to a very difficult problem.

So ten minutes later there I was in a wide and crowded parking lot, surrounded by rice pads and Japanese-looking tiny wooden houses, walking towards my gallows. On the one side a flower store simply called “Hana-ya, flower shop.” On the other side a gray, three-story, anonymous, concrete building. In front of it a sizable sign read “Dearu Koku - Itaria-ryoori, Dear Coke - Italian cuisine” spelled both in English and in katakana. I told myself: “You knew it would be an adventure, so shut up and go for the ride!” This “suggestion” made it easier to accept my inevitable fate, and entering the dining hall I was much more relaxed and ready to go with the flow. There was something melancholic in the combination of olfactory, visual and tactile stimulation I received from the place, so I won't talk in detail about the mixture of smells that grabbed me at my stomach as we walked in, neither about the sensation of greasy sticky floor, nor about the faded color of the wall-paper, peeling here and there from the walls.

We were told by a very polite hostess that the place was full and we had to wait “nijippungurai, around 20 minutes.” For a second I thought that it was an eternity to be stuck there and hoped that my two companions would not agree to this delay in our work schedule for the day, but after a quick powwow they decided it was OK, so they gave the hostess my name to put us in the waiting list, and asked for the menu.

Remember, I was going with the flow, so when they got excited reading on the menu Shichiriaana pitsa, Sicilian pizza, I also got all excited. Because of our unbecoming reaction we incurred in the hostess’ angry looks, at which one of my companions explained: “Kare-wa Shichiria-jin desu! Kare-wa Shichiria-jin desu! He’s Sicilian! He’s Sicilian!” After dropping her jaw and exclaiming: “Hontoooooo!? Reeeeally?!” the hostess started bowing down to me. Not just head-bowing. Not even upper-body-30-degree bowing. Rather full-blown-upper-body-90 -degree bowing. Not once, not twice, but I lost track of how many times she did.

When she finally got over herself, she called someone else to replace her and made a very polite, measured gesture inviting us to follow her. We went downstairs to the lower hall that wasn’t open up to that moment, and accompanying her words with another hand gesture she said that we could sit anywhere we wanted. At that point I knew exactly what I would have had for lunch that day: shichiriaana pitsa, no matter what was on it.

As she listed the ingredients of the pizza my mouth was getting all watery: mozzarella, tomato sauce, eggplants and… salmon, all foods I love. Not really the ingredients for Sicilian pizza but at least there was no pork. Moreover the fact that she had mentioned the eggplants somehow reassured me that at least the eggplants would be Sicilian style (one centimeter cubes, fried in olive oil, and then simmered in tomato sauce).

For Americans, Sicilian pizza is the one and a half inch tall chewy dough I have never been able to swallow. For Sicilians, Sicilian pizza (which, by the way, we call spincione), is a 3-quarter of an inch oily dough, loaded with fresh tomato sauce, roasted bread crumbs, pecorino cheese, anchovies, sliced onions, oregano, and capers and olives buried inside. For me it is my mom and her sisters kneading the dough at the beginning of the spring, and spreading it in large old pans blackened by the smoke of the wood oven, and myself and my cousins pushing capers and olives deep inside the dough. Shichiriaana pitsa was none of this.

In much less than the 20 minutes she had told us at first, my shichiriaana pitsa and my companions’ two pastas were on our table. The sauce was fine. The mozzarella, was motsarera, a processed yellowish cheese; the salmon, tiny lozenges of lox; the eggplants, thin, raw, pungent slices. This extremely heterogeneous mixture of stuff was symmetrically arranged over a round, machine-pressed, crunchy piece of dough that tasted like shmurah matza (which I happen to love, so I lucked out!). I ate all of it, making loud sounds of approval, continuously saying “Oishii! Delicious!” and giving thumbs up to our hostess, who was standing there silently at our disposal.

Later that day, on the train ride from Tadotsu to the next stop of the journey, Tokushima city, I couldn’t help but thinking about those people’s reaction to the fact that I'm Sicilian, and about the discomfort it caused me. Discomfort because of my ambivalent feelings about being Italian and, the even more mixed feelings about being Sicilian; about my pride for Italy and Sicily of the past, and my loathing for Italy and Sicily of today. But, given that I have to come up with two derashot for this Shabbat, this will have to be the subject of another blog entry at some point later on.

Three “Babel Moments” that happened during this one day at Tadotsu:

  1. The “Aru Kapone! Aru Kapone!” mentioned above.
  2. “Creap,” the name of a coffee creamer served with coffee at Dearu Koku, clearly a contraction of “cream powder” and pronounced as “creep.”
  3. “Let's shit together,” a highly unlikely suggestion during a very formal meeting. I should remember in future that many Japanese pronounce “see, sea, si” as “shee, shea, shi.”

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