Mussel man

by Deborah Smith

My twelve-year old son, Conor, patiently walked around Rome all day in the pouring rain, sharing my umbrella or traveling like a sardine on the packed subway. By evening, we stood inside Giolitti’s gelateria near the Pantheon, eating our cones and silently dripping onto the marble floor. As we finished, the rain pounded harder, running in rivulets off the canopy outside the store. My son had finally HAD it.

“I want to go home.”

“You don’t want dinner?”

“No I’m wet right through. Mommy, I just want to go back to our room.”

“Okay, let’s find the subway.”

I took a roundabout route back to the convent room. Facing an evening without dinner, possibly awake at 3.00am and starving, I peered through the rain for anywhere to eat.

Find lasagna. Eaten at every meal, in different restaurants where we traveled, my son could write Italy’s Best Lasagna Guide. He altered his pattern only once: in Perugia, when we cut down a side street and discovered a pizzeria. While he ate cheese pizza, I had a delectable slice of black truffle pizza with ricotta. It was one of my best detours yet. Now, if I can figure out one more…

We exited the Metro. Walking towards Piazza Madonna del Monte, I checked out each eatery’s menu for lasagna. My son wasn’t interested.

A block further, I looked through the steamy windows of La Vecchia Roma to see noisy waiters, red-checked tablecloths and a warmly-lit interior crammed with people and food.

“Let’s look in here!” I pulled Conor in by the arm before he could protest.

Alongside the door three torte de crema sat on a dessert cart. When he saw the cake, now thinking al a mode to his gelato, my son went over to a table.

At La Veccia Roma, the action was lively, the service quick and the people entertaining. Delicious bruschetta pomodora appeared instantly along with our menu. The owner approached from behind, rattling out a welcome in high-volume Italian before he even reached our table.

Absorbed in meal decisions, the sudden volley of Italian in our direction took me by surprise. I jumped in my seat. My son collapsed in peals of laughter. The owner thought this was brilliant. After a few more quips, he asked for our requests.

I wanted gnocchi con cozze and so did my son. The owner pointed at Conor.

Con pomodoro?” thinking he’d heard incorrectly.

“No, con cozze per mi figlio.” I asserted. My son loves mussels and was set for a plateful.

Alora, gnocchi con cozze.” He had his doubts about Conor.

Around us was a Roman-Evening-When-It-Rains. A mature man in a suit conversed—while eating his way through a pile of clams—with his younger woman companion. She sipped her espresso as he ate. Families chatted over supper. Plates clinked and the steamy air smelled of tomatoes and freshly-made pasta. Dripping wet people came and went.

Planning ahead to dessert, my son asked about the cakes. Before I could reply, an older gentleman came through the door. Dressed in a camel hair coat, he clutched a small pile of sheet music. He walked halfway into the trattoria, stopped amid the tables, smiled and began to sing. Several patrons gave him a Euro when he finished. After two or three wonderful songs, I tossed in a Euro too.

Italiana?” he asked

No, io sona Americana.

Si, Americana…

As the patrons watched, he stood at our table and sang “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. Conor was dazzled by his performance. I was charmed. Then, ever the gentile uomo, he bowed and walked out into the night.

Our food arrived. Two steaming trays of sauced mussels in their shells hid freshly made gnocchi—pillows of potato-based pasta that are a Thursday night staple in Rome. Without hesitation, my son dove into his pile of mussels.

Soon I was swept away from the rain soaked-evening by a plate of tender seafood delicately flavored with tomatoes and garlic. My gnocchi, the size of dimes, were so light I thought the mussels must weigh them down so they couldn’t float off the plate. I forgot about the weather with the first sip of red wine. Life was good, especially in Rome.

Later, a scrap of paper was gently slipped beneath my arm. Written by hand, it said just “€20.” The owner appeared as we told him how good we’d found his food. His trattoria had created a wonderful evening for both of us.

In from the rain came a concertina player. He squeezed out a tune as we made an exit in the downpour, full of Italian comfort food, to await the next morning’s sun.

© Deborah Smith

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem