Palermo, Sicily. Sicily - not Italy. The older Sicilians will tell you there is a difference. "We are SICILIANS! Not just Italians!" (My parents would tell you a similar line "we are KANSANS! Not just Americans……")
The wasbund and I were living in a poor area of Palermo, just a few blocks from the park which was the heart of prostitution in the city. My neighbors had taken us under their wings, like pets in need of coaching and direction, and it was a big thing that the parents of the Americans were coming to visit.
They arrived on an early morning flight and I drove them along the coast, past fields and the small outer villages that lead the way to this city of insanity. As I pulled up in front of the little apartment that had become my home, the neighbor I had adopted as my Sicilian Mom came out to greet my parents.
Tradition is important in Sicily, and we were formally invited into her cool dark home where she proceeded to brew a pot of strong black espresso. I showed my parents how to load the thimble of coffee with sugar and they politely choked it down.
After a short visit, we kissed our host goodbye and stepped back into the sunlight where we were greeted by the family that lived on the other side of me. The espresso came out again, and I waited until backs were turned and exchanged my empty cup for the ones my parents were trying to struggle through.
Making our way outside again, my friend Ina spotted us and waved us over. "Come inside," she insisted, and we climbed the stairs to her second floor apartment. "Cafe?" she asked, as she headed for her tiny kitchen. "Yes, thank you," I responded, though my parents had figured out the process by now and immediately said "No!"
"Mom, you REALLY want the coffee here," I tried to explain, but Ina was one step ahead of me. "Well, if you don't want coffee, I have something better," replied Ina, and I knew we were in for trouble, because if you don't drink Ina's coffee, she is going to produce some kind of liquor, even if it is just 9 in the morning.
Happily chattering away, Ina opened her cabinet, produced tiny glasses and a bottle of some horrible hooch. In my extremely fractured Italian, I'm trying to explain to her that my parents don't drink, and really, coffee would be much better.
Ina pours a bit for my mom, the honored guest, and places it in front of her and before I know what is happening, Mom's hand reaches out, grabs the glass and belts it down! As the liquid is still making its way down her throat, she smacks the glass back onto the table and loudly proclaims "YUUUUCK!"
The room stops. Ina is not expecting this response from her cherished offering, and I am stunned that my teetotaling mother has just belted down a glass of rot-gut!
As we left Ina's house a bit later, I asked Mom (who has previously never let a drop of alcohol pass her lips) what possessed her to slug that drink down. "Well," she replied, "I remember when your cousin was in Equador in the Peace Corps. When her parents came to visit they were served guinea pigs with the little feet still in place and they had to eat them.
"I figured I'd better drink that stuff in the interest of world peace."
..........somehow the neighbors still loved her, but her phone wasn't ringing off the hook for her inclusion in a lot of peace-keeping efforts.
Photo: Mom, before her "drinking days". Probably circa 1950