October 14, 2012

Bread and Salami, Bread and Cheese, No Bread

My first two visits to Italy in 1992 and 1993 were days rich with stories and experiences. Twenty years later, as I settle in to living here, it's fun when something recalls one of those earlier moments. There was one on one of my last days of Italian school when a funny little word came up, a word with which I had a history: etto.

In the spring of 1993, when I was alleged to be studying philosophy at University College Galway, we had almost a month off around Easter. So, naturally, we Americans all strapped on our backpacks, got on the boat at Rosslare, arrived the next morning in Cherbourg, and wandered into the Continent. My group was three when we started; me, this girl Beth, and this kid Travis who was a student at Marquette. I have no idea what happened to him, but I would be curious to know. Beth got sick of us after a few days and went her way. At one point another girl joined us, Christine of Minnesota, whom we met--if I remember rightly--because I saw her brushing her teeth in the street in Munich and thought that made someone interesting. She was charming and liked to drink strawberry milk, but she also ditched us after a little while.

Towards the end of our wanderings, Travis and I found ourselves in Italy. One day he announced that, being in Italy, he would like to have some Provolone cheese. It was one of his favorite cheeses, he said. We were somewhere, I don't remember where, when we came across a cheese shop. Neither of us, however, spoke any Italian. How were we to know how to ask for some cheese? Travis, I know not how, thought he knew how to ask for a little bit of something. You asked for an etto. So that's what he was going to do, go into the cheese shop and ask for an etto of Provolone.

Now I'm sure the formaggiaio at the cheese stop spent much of his life being asked for an etto. It's short for ettogrammo, meaning 100 grams. It's a common enough word in the realm of food shopping. But it's not the kind of word you learn in language class. As my mother says, after years and years of foreign language study, when you can interpret poetry and discourse on the classics of its literature, you still won't know how to buy a pork chop.

Once you've studied Italian a little bit, it's easy to see right away that etto is how it would render the prefix we have in English as hecta-, from the Greek hekaton, a hundred. Although I don't know why anyone would bother leaving the house to buy 100 grams of cheese, unless virgin elves had made it out of unicorn milk or something. On the other hand, I guess I've seen people buy quarter-pounds of things at the deli counter. That would be just a little more than 100 grams. But still, it seems pretty measly.

Tuscan Pecorino, € 2.55 for an etto. Pricey!

Anyway, all of these etymological reflections were unavailable to Travis and I that day. Neither of us had any idea what an etto was, but he was certain that it was how you asked for a little bit of something. And he was right, more or less. So he went into the cheese shop. I must have gone to do some other errand, because I missed his encounter with the formaggiaio. I don't know what happened in there, but I know this: he did not succeed in getting his etto. He emerged with something much larger. It had to be a kilogram at the very least. Or as they would say here, a chilogrammo, because they don't have the letter 'k.'

So there we were, stuck with this big hunk of Provolone cheese, which was very good, by the way. So we ate it over the next couple of days, buying loaves of bread wherever we were and making sandwiches. Now in Italy it's easy enough to find and buy a loaf of bread. But you have to know the critical difference, obvious to Italians but somewhat lost on us at the time, between the sort of place that sells loaves of bread and the sort of place that only sells bread already made into more complex things like sandwiches.

So it became one of the famous quotes of the trip when we approached some business or other trying to buy bread so that we could work on our block of Provolone. The man looked at us like we were crazy, and, as he gestured toward his array of panini, he said, in English,

"Bread and salami, bread and cheese, no bread!"

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