As we were walking back to our apartment the other day we ran into a man on the street who has a furniture restoration shop across from our building. While we’ve seen him numerous times since we moved in and have waved and said hello, we’ve never actually met. This time the few words we exchanged turned into a conversation and we introduced ourselves. As we were getting ready to part ways, the man, Alfredo, said that the following day was the celebration of San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph), the patron saint of woodworkers. He said he was going to be hosting a small gathering for his clients and friends and he invited us to come.
He said something about “dolce” (sweets), and we weren’t sure if he meant we should bring some, or if he was going to be providing them. (To be fair, it’s not that we didn’t grasp his Italian - we actually understood him perfectly, it’s just that he didn’t always use complete sentences. For example, when he mentioned the “dolce” that was in fact all he said: “Dolce.”) To be safe, we decided to bring something to contribute. When we asked about the timing of the party he said “mezzogiorno” (12pm), which Henry took to mean “beginning at 12pm”, and Gabriella took to mean “ending at 12pm.” To be safe, we decided to arrive “verso il mezzogiorno” (around 12pm). That was our first mistake – no one ever arrives on time.
The next day, certain we were in for another unexpected adventure, we headed over with our tray of Gabriella’s home-made jam tarts a little before 12pm. We expected to find a room full of people mingling about with half empty plates of food in their hands. Instead we found a long banquet table prepared for a sit-down meal with about 25 place-settings, and the only people there were Alfredo and his colleague, Domenico. Plates of food were at the ready in the back room. Clearly we were early - very early.
Being infinitely gracious and generous (as are all the Italians we have met to date!) they invited us in and offered us something to eat and drink. Alfredo said that most of the guests would be arriving between 12:30pm and 1:30pm and that he was expecting the children to arrive soon. We stood around awkwardly for a while trying to make conversation, not being sure if we should stay or go. Would it be more rude to continue to impose our awkward presence on them, or to disappear as though we were not grateful for what they were offering? We decided to stay, and managed to pass what seemed an eternity until the aforementioned children arrived (Alfredo’s grandchildren) who provided sufficient distraction for all of us. It’s hard enough for us to make conversation in situations like this when we’re in Seattle speaking English. Small talk is not our forte! Here we were trying to pull it off in Italian! We later learned from Monica, our ever wise Italian teacher, that in her opinion we were right to stay, regardless of how uncomfortable it was.
Once the guests began arriving we felt much more at ease. Now we were part of the party, no longer ignorantly early Americans. Alfredo kindly made a point of personally introducing us to each and every guest, and made sure we had seats when the time came to sit for the meal. We were served so much food (four courses, including Domenico’s home-made vino rosso and vin santo) that we didn’t need to eat again for the rest of the day. Seriously.
It turns out others had also brought various types of “dolce” (thanks goodness we got that part right!), and each guest was served a plate full of an assortment of them. Warmly and good-heartedly, Alfredo pointed out that Gabriella had brought the jam tarts, and in response there was a spontaneous chorus of “buonissime!” (delicious!). Score one for the Americans!
Everybody started leaving around 3pm, and we too took our cue to go. While we had initially thought we were heading over for a casual 20 minute visit, we ended up spending over three hours with people we had never met! On our way back across the street to our apartment we weren’t sure if we should feel embarrassed about or thankful for the experience. What about the invitation hadn’t we properly understood? We learned though that when someone says a particular time, it’s probably better to arrive a little later (though this is tricky – some Italians actually ARE punctual). One thing is for sure, we now know that when someone says they’re celebrating something it’s going to involve a big sit down meal, a lot of people, a lot of food, and a lot of time.