The only time I don’t have to spell my name

Whenever I give someone my name—say, when I’m making a restaurant reservation—the other person invariably asks me to spell it. This has happened my whole life, and my father’s whole life before me. And my name is not difficult to spell! I have known people named Szczepanski, Schweikhardt and Schuldheisz: you think maybe they have had problems making reservations?

Thankfully, there is one exception to this rule, one place where I have never had to spell my name—my ancestral homeland of Italy. Making a reservation there is like a breath of fresh air:

“E il nome?” (And the name?)
“Mostardi, perfetto. Arrivederci!”

You have no idea how liberating this is. Better yet, this extends also to Italian restaurants in America run by native speakers. Just today I reserved a table at Ideale, our favorite dinner spot in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. We spoke in Italian, and he didn’t ask how to spell my name. Ahhhh. It’s a beautiful thing.

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago today, Arlene and I were married. We spent time today looking through our wedding photographs, remarking how we all look twenty years older, and noting with sadness those that have since passed away. Arlene pointed out a picture of me pruning a redwood tree in my morning coat, so that our huppah wouldn’t get caught in dangling branches; I had forgotten all about that. This evening we celebrated with dinner at the Chez Panisse cafe; it was delicious. The years have been full of love. Thank you, sweetie.

Tempura, sashimi & sushi at Ebisu

Today Arlene and I had lunch at Ebisu at 9th & Irving in San Francisco. Ebisu is one of our two favorite Japanese restaurants in the City (the other is Takara on Post in Japantown), and we often eat there if we’re near Golden Gate Park. We both ordered a bento box with tempura, sashimi and sushi. Ebisu’s salads (which in many bentos are mere afterthoughts, often cole slaw or potato salad) are delicious: seaweed salad, oshitashi, and mixed lettuce & radish.

Tempura Sashimi Sushi
Lunch bento #2 at Ebisu

Pappardelle in sugo di maiale

100 years ago today, my grandmother Lena arrived at Ellis Island, two weeks after sailing from Palermo, Sicily. In her honor, I dined this evening at Trattoria La Siciliana, in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley.

sugo di maiale
Pappardelle in sugo di maiale, from Trattoria La Siciliana

Here was my entree, homemade pappardelle in sugo di maiale (pork sauce). Not only was it really yummy, it tasted quite like what Grandma would have made herself. The owner, Angelo d’Alo, is very friendly and speaks Italian like a native. The restaurant is decorated with all sorts of Sicilian ceramics, posters and photographs. Two thumbs up!

The Immigrant Experience

One hundred years ago today, 10 June 1910, my grandmother and her older sister stepped off the S. S. Neckar onto Ellis Island in New York City. They had left Palermo, Sicily on 28 May.

Last night I was listening to a podcast of an interview with novelist Isabel Allende, who was went into exile from her native Chile in 1973 after a military coup. Her words speak for the experiences of millions of others:

It’s very hard to leave behind everything that is familiar and go to another place to make a life. You do that only because you’re desperate, because going back is worse. But the dream of what you leave behind stays with people, and it haunts the first generation.

Being an exile is very different from being an immigrant. An immigrant, ultimately, chooses to go. The person in exile has no choice. In that case, the only way out is going back. So they never unpack, and in their minds they’re always waiting to go back. An immigrant looks to the future. An exile looks to the past.

What I try to tell the immigrants my foundation works with is “You can live in the United States, you can adapt here, you can get to love this country the way I love it, without losing any of what you bring with you. You don’t have to lose the language, you don’t have to lose the traditions, the food, the family. No! The idea is to add, add as much as possible, and be totally bi-cultural.” But immigrants don’t understand that, because they feel so alien, so left out, that they think if they don’t become American, completely Americanized, they will never belong. But I say “You will never belong anyhow. Your children will. So forget about it. Your children will, and you will always have a foot there and foot here. And that’s ok. That’s the way it is.”

Novelist Isabel Allende, speaking at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on 14 September 2009

To the memory of my grandmother, Onofria Napoli, 1894-1977.