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A Spoonful of Zucchero

Photo by Faran Raufi on Unsplash

I knew the sound very well. I had heard it a million times before - from living in Italy in the 90s, watching Italian films and TV shows, and hearing it in many different buildings around town. But, even though the sound was familiar to me, it still startled me the first time it happened in MY apartment. It was the sound of my Italian doorbell.

Early this morning, after hearing the traditional sounds of accordions and horns outside of my window (no joke), I was doing some small tasks around my apartment in order to run out the door and grab a coffee. Last night, I was out until 1 a.m. -- a rare occasion for me -- so I was having a lazier start to my day. When my doorbell rang, it was startling, because it was something I hadn't yet heard in my two months living here.

At first, I thought it was someone buzzing from outside, trying to get in. Then it happened again. "Signora?" said a voice from outside of my door. My door!

Instant panic ensued. I hadn't even met any of my neighbors. Our schedules up until this point were like ships in the night. I had heard people in the stairwell, but I hadn't yet bumped into anyone.

I was half-dressed, wearing a tank top and jeans, in the process of grabbing my sweater that was hanging outside on the clothesline. "Arrivo!" (I'm coming) I said, racking my brain about what this interaction could be. Get ready, Stefanie...make a good impression. La bella figura. Thank goodness my hair was done and I had some makeup on.

I saw a sweet, elderly lady on the other side. She proceeded to ask if I could lend her some sugar; she only needed a little bit. She had asked her daughter to buy some but she had forgotten. Thankfully, a few weeks before, I had picked some up at the supermarket. I was planning on buying a moka pot and learning how to make Italian coffee at home.

I grabbed a disposable plastic cup and started pouring sugar in. She only need a little bit--that was great, she would give me some back tomorrow, she said. I assured her it wasn't necessary.

It was such a small ask, but it reminded me about what I find charming about Italy. Even as times change and the world fills with its modernization, there are so many traditional elements. After about 17 years of living away from home, in strange cities, not once has anyone ever knocked on my door for sugar. Heck, in some of the cities I've lived, I haven't even managed to make eye contact with some of my neighbors. I've always thought that there is a stronger sense of connection with Italians--I have always found them to be so kind, generous, and helpful. And this was like that classic favor from back in the day -- could you spare a cup of sugar/an egg/some milk? I'm so glad I was prepared.

I introduced myself and we exchanged names. Unfortunately, I can't remember hers, because sometimes the stress of operating in another language causes my memory to not work so well...maybe it's the pressure of trying to conjugate everything just so and make sure I'm using the correct genders for nouns. But, she asked me how long I was here, and when I said that I was here just to learn and improve my Italian, all she said was, "brava."

A compliment from an Italian nonna and being able to fulfill my neighborly duties with a few spoonfuls of sugar? Now, that's pretty sweet!


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