Following is a portfolio of paragraphs, each written with a different goal.
On my family’s summer vacations to Italy, I plunge into Italian life, in all its wondrous diversity. Every morning, we drive down to the marina, a sandy beach littered with a peculiar mixture of jubilant kids scampering about and torpid old men and women drying in the scorching Mediterranean sun. Those who decide not to go in for a dip in the refreshing water face being hounded by beach vendors, known as Marocchini. In the afternoon, we drive to Ancona, a city that brims with Italian culture. The public square, or piazza, is cluttered with people conversing about everything from soccer to Berlusconi’s latest shenanigans. Ancona’s hidden beauty is exemplified by the Basilica of San Ciriaco, a small yet impressive church perched high above the city with magnificent views of the port and the historic center. In the evening we head back home to our country house and I lose myself in the ravishing Italian countryside. Across the street, sunflowers paint the landscape an effervescent blend of yellow, brown, and green. Our neighbors, Nello and Nerina, farmers who work rigorously tending livestock and planting crops despite their advanced age, toil even as the sun sets into the rolling hills around us. As the sky grows dark, the air fills with the inviting smells of my Aunt Laura’s famous cooking. After a boisterous dinner and a happily exhausting day, we head off to bed with full stomachs and wait to be woken by the early morning shriek of Nello’s rooster.
Finding the right restaurant for everyone is a dilemma that my extended Italian family always struggles with. Our arguments often turn hostile to the point where my parents and
siblings and I will detach ourselves from the rest of our still quarreling relatives and go eat by ourselves. The problem lies not with the quality or quantity of food we eat; rather, it is where we eat. My immediate family is a united group of bargain hunters, we are always looking for the restaurant that will give us the best food for the lowest price, even if it means eating at McDonald’s. On the other hand, my grandparents and aunts and uncles that live in Ancona
would never risk having their friends and coworkers see them at a restaurant that had less than a five star rating. One would think that a reasonable solution to my family’s problem would just be to disperse and each one could eat the at the restaurant of their own preference. Wrong. What makes an Italian dinner so special is not the food that is eaten, but the conversations that are had at the table and the bonds that develop and last a lifetime. I believe the best solution to our problem would be for all of us to stay home for dinner. That way we would all be together without having to worry about being judged by others or spending too much.
Penne all’arrabbiata is a traditional Italian pasta dish. It is composed of penne pasta and spicy arrabbiata sauce, which is made from garlic cooked in olive oil with tomatoes and red chili peppers. The garlic is cooked first in the olive oil at medium temperature just long enough to release the aroma without burning the garlic. Freshly cut tomatoes and red chili peppers are then added and the sauce is simmered at low temperature. The penne is boiled in salted water until cooked “al dente”, softened yet with just a bit of firmness remaining. What makes the dish so delectable is its spiciness, spawned from the heat of the chili peppers. It is as if the chili peppers are throwing a tantrum in your mouth that only becomes more raucous with every succeeding bite. This stirring sensation is encapsulated in the dish’s name: arrabiata literally means “angry” in Italian; ergo, the full translation of the dish is “angry pasta.”
When my family and I are on vacation, we do not blend in well with the local crowd. Despite the fact that we are all able speakers of the Italian language, we prefer to converse in English. In large tourist destinations like Rome and Florence, the locals are used to hearing English, and some can even speak it well. Menus and signs have English translations, serving as a subliminal welcome for outsiders. In Ancona, however, one rarely finds anyone who speaks a word of English, so my family and I often get scornful looks from people walking down the street. Not only do we insist on speaking English to one another, but we dress like Americans. Italians are revered worldwide for their impeccable fashion sense. The sidewalk transforms into a catwalk, as locals strut in the latest apparel from fashion giants like Gucci and Giorgio Armani. While Italians turn the sidewalk into a catwalk, my family turns it into the clearance rack. My parents often sport a pair of worn out sandals with a fleece tied around their waists in case one of us kids starts to feel cold, while my siblings and I don sneakers with a jersey from our favorite sports team. It is not difficult to pick us out from the crowd.
Being able to drink legally in Italy made me feel invincible. However, I learned the hard way that even though I was legal, I was far from invincible. It was the day of my 16th birthday, and my older cousin had invited me to go bar hopping with her and some friends. I pounced at the opportunity, knowing that I could brag to my friends about being served at a bar. The night was a blast. The alcohol bolstered my already loquacious personality while also stirring up a warm and fuzzy sensation in my body: it felt great. As we trooped from bar to bar, uttering coherent sentences became a challenge, and my body had reached a state of perpetual dizziness: it still felt great. At one point we were all walking down the street, and my cousin asked me to light her cigarette. As I went to light it, I fumbled the lighter in my hand and burned part of my thumb. I was astounded by the lack of pain I was feeling, leaving me with the empty-headed conclusion that I had reached a state of invincibility. I thus proceeded to light the rest of my fingers on fire, as my cousin and the rest our drunken posse howled with laughter. The morning after, my invincibility had been replaced with a brutal hangover. I had burns on my fingers and a remarkably fierce headache: it did not feel great.
My Italian mother has the temperament of her homeland’s legendary Mt. Vesuvius. At home in the United States, she can easily quiet my sibling’s quarrels and my father’s temper with her calm demeanor. Likewise, Mt. Vesuvius seemed nothing more than a pleasant giant that watched over the people of Pompeii. However, when my family is on vacation in Italy, a lot of responsibility is put on my mother’s shoulders. My cousin Bianca essentially becomes my mother’s fourth child because her parents both work during the day. Bianca is an only child who is used to having things always go her way. When they don’t she turns on the waterworks. Bianca’s tantrums are a daily test for my mother’s nun-like forbearance. One day, Bianca, who is not exactly svelte, was jumping on top of a table, and it unsurprisingly collapsed. Bianca began to cry, and my mother came to see what was the matter. As she examined the scene, something in my mother’s face changed. It was not that this incident was worse than any other, but clearly the pressure had clearly been building up inside her for months. So, like Vesuvius, with its heated gases built up to the breaking point, she abruptly blew her top. My mother berated Bianca and anyone else within range, unleashing a fiery stream of insults about our immaturity and lack of respect. Eventually, she quieted and sat smoldering in her room, while we began to wonder when the next eruption might be coming.
My great-grandmother was never the same person after the death of her husband. The highlight of my summer vacation used to be watching the fullness to which my great-grandmother lived her life. Despite being in her late eighties, she defied the stereotype of the old lazy Italian with her vitality and caring nature. She designed my Halloween costumes, cooked her delicious homemade pasta, and made sure that every Tuesday she would go to get her hair done. She would greet everyone she met with a hug and kiss and follow it with a joke about being sure that she was shrinking. The catalyst for her energy was my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather survived two heart attacks in his late nineties and served as an inspiration for not only my grandmother, but for my entire family. When he died, so did my great-grandmother’s vivacious persona. She spent the majority of her final days under the covers, overwhelmed with grief. A few years later, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to use her legs. My grandparents were forced to hire an assistant to help her with simple tasks, such as getting out of bed, dressing herself, and going to the bathroom. On her death, she was happy that she was about to die, knowing that she would again be with her husband. Regardless, it was difficult seeing someone who once loved life so much be so welcoming to death.