The other day I was having a decidedly un-Italian lunch. I’d driven 45 minutes south to Susa, Italy for sushi. It was my first day out with the car in Italy, without Paolo, thus the sushi. I’d mustered up the courage to take the winding Alps road, park half on the sidewalk, ask for a table for one, and order for myself in Italian. The wine was in order.
There I sat with my glass of white wine, sushi, and a stack of flashcards working diligently on my Italian when someone caught my eye. Glancing up, I saw an older woman dressed in a leopard print coat, with a matching leopard print mask. She was the sort of woman you notice. The kind that seems just a half step off. Her voice was a notch too loud. Her gestures took up more space than her 5’2″ frame would imply. Her mask, uselessly cupping her chin.
Unlike other customers who waited by the door, she wandered into the restaurant and stood between two tables. One of them was mine. An odd place to stand, I thought.
Intently she watched me flip through my cards. An open invitation.
“Il vino è buono? Forse dovrei bere del vino a pranzo.” Is the wine good? Maybe I should have some with my lunch. Half question, half statement.
“Sî, vino è buono con sushi.” Yes, wine is good with sushi, I managed. If my flashcards hadn’t given me away, my accent and broken Italian had.
“Di dove sei” Where are you from?
Holy crap, I understand her, I thought and what’s more, I knew what to say.
“Da America” From America.
“Davvero, Americana?” Really, American?
Surely that would be the end of it I thought, glancing back at my cards. My elementary Italian wasn’t ready for deeper conversations with strangers.
She was having none of it.
“Sei a scuola qui?” Are you in school she asked glancing at my flashcards.
Apparently, my grays were not showing.
“No, mi sono trasferito qui ad aprile con mio marito. Il mio marito è Italiano.” No, I moved here with my Husband. My Husband is Italian.
“Per amore!” For love she exclaimed. The next bit was a little fuzzier, but I plucked out enough words to understand she too had moved here for love, although only from the south. She’d recently bought a home just around the corner. How fun, my husband and I had just decided on a place north of here in Bardonecchia.
The next thing I knew, in walked her love. Which became obvious because she began shouting “Amore, lei è Americana! Americana Amore!” She smiled down at me like she’d found a puppy. Another giant wave “Amore, lei è Americana!” she shouted a third time.
Heads were turning. My face was now on fire. An introvert by nature, I struggle with attention under normal circumstances. Being an immigrant, on my own, pointed out as American in the time of COVID and well Trump, left me a bit uncertain of what to do. I ended up somewhere between a nod and half a wave to the people who has been disturbed enough to turn around.
Yep, the American in small-town Italy. That’s me. Nothing to see here folks.
I glanced up at my new friend. Her eyes were twinkling. It was then that I noticed her purple mascara. She was genuinely excited she had rooted me out. Introvert or not, I suddenly stopped minding. She was being nice to me. I had understood her words. Appreciated her quirkiness. Here was my first conversation with a stranger in Italy. I had passed and come out smiling. It felt good.
In the age of COVID it wasn’t the safest exchange with her emphatic breaths and flying spittle. Still, here stood a woman fascinated, open and kind. A Nonna with no kids to spoil. Something else I learned during our brief exchange. How could I not warm to her. Then it happened.
She reached out and pinched my cheek with vim and vigor. As if she wanted to take a piece of me with her. That was that. She smiled and walked to her table, off to have wine and sushi with her Amore.
What Cheek Pinching Means
Italians pinch cheeks with feeling. It’s a way to greet or leave someone with affection. Apparently, as in my case, it’s always a way to let someone, usually younger know you think they are cute in the sense of sweet. It’s endearing. A non-threatening form of affection. It’s also tactile. A pinched cheek has a way of reminding you for some time after it’s there.
In the moment, I was so surprised I had no idea what to do other than smile and accept my very first Italian cheek pinching. It was a good one too. She’d grabbed hard enough it reminded me of that scene in The Princess Bride where Peter Falk pinches Fred Savage.
As an American living in Italy, the touch barrier is broken far more than I’m accustomed to. Perhaps in time, I too might grow used to, or even grow to hate aggressive cheek pinching. Right now though, I’m looking at my 45th birthday so I’ll take it. Leopard print, purple mascara, and all.