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Siamo Alla Frutta

December 28, 2012

I ate two oranges this morning. Big, round, perfect, juicy oranges. Citrus globules.

This is the season for oranges.

I didn’t have an orange peeler, so I bit through their skin once so that I could peel them. My friend Rachel showed me how to do this in college. When I saw her dig her teeth into the orange’s skin, I was perplexed. But she said, “Sometimes, you just have to do it.” Since then, I have.

An ex-boyfriend used to eat bananas with his fingers, breaking off pieces and popping them in his mouth. Since I first saw him do that, it’s become a more appealing method for me, too. I am not sure why.

When I was in Florence, my host dad Babbo showed me how to peel an orange without getting the white part under my fingernails, using a knife. Italians take care when eating their fruit, as they do in so many things. Babbo adored showing me how to do things. The moments when he showed me are now etched in my memory. He delighted in opening new worlds to me.

“Le ragazze americane non sanno il piacere di andare in motorino,” he shouted back to me as we sped down the hill in Antella past tiny Fiats beneath a cloudless sky and my hair flew in the breeze behind me. He was right.

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There was nothing more soothing than the fruit course. “Ecco, la tartaruga!” my host mom would say. And she would hand us the wooden tortoise filled with fruit. Italian fruit tastes different. In the beginning of the semester, in September, we ate fruit from the garden behind the house (pictured above): white and red figs, apricots, plums, and apples. Later in the year, we had apples from the store, which had more matte skins than American apples, and were somehow crisper in texture, but not flavor. We had small oranges, which were flecked with dots of red. As it got closer to Christmas, they became redder.

“Diventano piu` e piu` rosse, e piu` buone,” Babbo said.

Then we had bananas. Dallas would leave half a banana under my coffee mug at breakfast, along with a handful of almonds taken from a giant bag that her mom had shipped her from the Costco in Washington state. These were well-travelled almonds.

Each fruit had to be peeled, with a knife. Not just bananas and oranges, but apples and pears and peaches too. Learning to peel fruit with a knife was one of the manual tasks I learned in Italy, along with the proper way to gracefully eat spaghetti (and ravioli–never cut them in half), how to apply mascara, and how to blow-dry my hair.

My grandma told a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she fell in love with my grandfather, an Italian from Pisa, when she saw him peeling a peach with a fork and a knife.

My grandparents at the Venetian resort in Las Vegas, NV

The fruit course is a restful, contemplative time, as I remember it. Your fruit peels drop onto the little plate in front of you. Sometimes you split an apple or a pear with someone. Around Christmas, nuts join the fruit course. Walnuts in their shells. Incidentally, I’ll never forget the time that Babbo took us on a long country walk, where we plundered an abandoned walnut tree and carried home as many as we could in our pockets, past hills of silver-tinged olive trees and paths flanked by cypress trees. They signify welcome, Babbo told me.

If you’re lucky, you savor a square of chocolate after you finish your fruit. “Ho voglia di qualcosa di buono.” Babbo would say. “Chi vuole qualcosa di buono?”

The expression siamo alla frutta literally means “We’re at the fruit course” and it means that you are finished, done, or worn out. During study abroad we used to say this when we were tired out from exams or travelling or eating too much. You can also say sono al verde  or sono al lumicino.

Florence Italy

And on Sundays, after the huge family lunch at 2 or 3, there was espresso. “Chi vuole caffe?” my host mom asked. And then she taught us fiorentino: “Un caffe, due haffe, tre caffe, quattro haffe.” Sometimes, only sometimes, Florentines drop the hard c: la hasa, la hiesa, instead of la casa, la chiesa. Brusciare instead of bruciare. But for non-native speakers, it’s hard to know when. I believe my Italian linguistics professor at Middlebury explained the formula to me. But, I don’t remember it. I only know what I remember from having lived there, from having learned Italian there, from the time when I believed that Fiorentino was proper Italian because it was the first Italian I heard. The baby that sees its mother when it first opens its eyes: that was me. I opened my eyes and ears in Italy and saw Florence and took her as my home.

San Miniato Al Monte Florence Firenze Dante Alighieri

Of course, natives of Florence insist that their Italian is the only proper Italian. After all, the fiorentino Dante Alighieri based his one unified Italian language on the Florentine dialect, declaring it the most pure.

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2012 was not a good year for fruit. An early frost threw off the apple and peach crops. I didn’t have one good peach this summer. No sweet juice exploding through the fuzzy skin on first bite, then dribbling down fingers and chin. At an apple orchard in Rochester, where my parents live, signs encouraged visitors to “pick apples from the barrel, not the trees” because of the year’s difficult crop. Here in Astoria, the local 30th Ave Fruit Market & Apple Barn, a long yellow room filled with bins and bins of apples and a cold, sweet apply scent, ran out of Empire apples after only a few weeks.

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Like the peach does summer, Empire apples speak of Autumn to me, in their cool refreshing crispness and fresh tart flavor. Autumn, the season of renewal and quiet passing into sleep, of rest and reflection. No Empire apples whispered this to me, this year. No round fuzzy peaches infused me with their summertime excitement, sang to me of dancing and beaches and sunshine-fueled burst of high energy followed by utterly lazy lying about.

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But navel oranges, large and perfectly round, juicy and sweet, call me home in December.

In Parma I ate oranges. Italian oranges, sold with their stems and leaves still on them, from Africa, from Sicily. Sweeter and softer than the ones I eat here. In Parma I squeezed fresh orange juice every day for the children I cared for. They never wanted to drink it. I always did. Who could turn down freshly hand-squeezed orange juice? I even added two spoonfuls of sugar for them.

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When I visited Sicily in 2009, I was offered oranges and other citrus fruit at every turn. Oranges the size of basketballs and lemons the size of footballs. This must be paradise, I thought.

And it was. Specifically, the moment that I visited this Fattoria di Cannoli, I felt that I had arrived at my life’s ultimate destination.

Fattoria di Cannoli Palermo

But perhaps, after all, the idea of an ultimate destination is just an illusion. I have been here, all along, untying the strands of my past in this bowl of pasta before me. Reaching deep into my heart to touch, tentatively, the secrets buried there. Opening my eyes and ears, once more, to see what is around me, to see less of what is inside me, and also to see more. Rediscovering a forgotten purity of spirit.

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