The woman I lived with during my junior year abroad in Florence, Italy, was not what I had imaged a sweet yet feisty Italian mama would be like. Signora B was a devoted born-again Christian living in a deeply Catholic country, a vegetarian, and didn’t believe in thermometers or most simple modern medicine. She didn’t have a large family coming in and out of her home, and the family that I did hear about were rarely regarded kindly. Her voice was high-pitched, ridden with false excitement, her hair was untamed and curly with a balding spot at the crown of her head, and her lipstick was everywhere but her lips. Though, her house was stunning—it was right next to the famous Piazza Santa Croce, and it must have been built sometime in the 15th century. She loved to talk about how Giovanni da Verrazzano, the famous Italian explorer, once lived there. Architecturally, it was beautiful; stylistically it was Signora B. Signora B was an artist in her temperament, her life style, and in her design. If she thought she could do it herself, she did, and often times, like sealing the floor with something that turned my socks brown, I had wished she wasn’t a “do-it-yourself” type.
The kitchen and dining room, and the events that encompassed that particular area of the house, were an instrumental part of my time in Italy. Every night, all the students and travelers living in the house would gather for a beautifully dysfunctional Italian family dinner. The kitchen, which was off-limits to her curious guests, was lined with newspaper as a makeshift cover to protect her precious tile from the whirlwind that she lived inside. Sitting in the dinning room, you could hear the newspaper crunching and ripping under her feet as she cooked and moved about. The dining area was warm and welcoming, even the ants from the garden loved to spend time there, hanging out with us at the table and sharing our dinner—dinner really was a Signora B family event.
When I applied to my program for my year abroad, I wrote my entrance essay about food, naturally. I essentially ate my way through my year abroad and I have the photos and stretch marks to prove it. Sometimes I look back on it and cringe at how disgusting I allowed myself to get, but then I think about everything I was uncontrollably gorging down and all pains of guilt and embarrassment disappear. Weight comes and goes, but living and studying in Italy is once in a lifetime. Now, with that said, Signora B’s dinners were uniquely her. As mentioned before, Signora B was a vegetarian, and I strongly suspect that the meat dishes she prepared for us, her sinful animal-murderers, was her passive-aggressive way of punishing us for our wrongdoings. It was usually a flat, un-cutable, un-chewable, piece of beef soaked in olive oil and decorated with chunks of salt. Her vegetables, from what I can remember were good—she made a delicious lentil soup and leek dish. Her wine tasted stale, which might have been from the pieces of the cork swimming in it. It was also not uncommon to find the strands of hair that once inhabited the crown of her head, in our dinner. Signore B unconsciously made sure that we could taste her chaotic emotions and irrational behavior.
Ironically, considering the enormous meals she prepared, Signora B hated leftovers, so she didn’t throw any food away until it was absolutely necessary. For instance, the questionable tuna casserole, which for a week made various appearances at the dinner table dressed in different carefully crafted mayonnaise patterns. Signora B thought she could fool us into eating it if it looked “prettier”—personally, mayonnaise wouldn’t have been my tool of choice in food beautification. Our appetizers were bowls of pasta, and because she hated leftovers and maybe hated me at times, I was assigned with the task to make sure none was left—like I said earlier, I have the photos and stretch marks to prove it. This continued until, thankfully, an American student built like a football player and dressed in J-crew took that burden off my shoulders. I sincerely thank him to this day because otherwise I am not sure I would have been able to fit in my airplane seat home, not that I wanted to go home, but it was a looming inevitability.
Living in Signora B’s house was not just accented by her food; it was also somewhat comparable to living at the United Nations. I was privileged enough to meet and engage in conversation with absolute characters from all over the world. I will never forget the Iraqi family I was almost sold off to as a wife, or the very kind Algerian family who lived in her dungeon-basement for a week. It was Signora B’s dinners, chunks of salt mixed with her strands of hair and all, which made these authentic interactions happen.
My memories of those many dinners is like the food she served—at first perplexing and even sometimes insulting, but in the end endearing. Signora B and I didn’t always get along, in fact there were some very emotional struggles between the two of us, some of which, I must admit were my fault but, by the end of the year through all the madness, Signora B and I had a special relationship. Though it’s impossible to tell what she was thinking and at times I doubted the motives of her reserved yet amicable gestures towards me, I will take it anyway, put it in a bowl, add some olive oil, twirl it with my fork, and, with satisfaction, eat it.