Breaking The Ice

By Marsha Smelkinson

“Vodka, limoncello and ice,” she specified.  Never mind that we were in the land of grapes and grappa.  Jeanne wanted a martini.

Sure, I told her, we’ll stop at the Pam supermarket we passed yesterday in Montevarchi. “It looks just like Ralphs or Von’s.  They’ll have exactly what you need.”

So Ernie and Bill and Jeanne and I took the Renault, while the others took off in Gary’s car for Pergine.  Bonnie had a plan for antipasto and dinner, with plenty of wine, and dessert on the patio next to the fireplace.   It would be a fine night, we all knew.  But first, Jeanne wanted a martini.

We followed the Pam signs from Arezzo, found the store, wound through the confusing parking lot, then back around the block again, before we spotted the perfect space steps from the front door.  I whispered the familiar paean, “Thank you, Asphalta,” just as I’d do after scoring the primo spot by the bagel place on a busy Saturday morning in Hillcrest.

The building teemed with families and shopping carts, all joined into single cells swimming amoeba-like through the market’s abundant aisles.  Now this was different.  Full families of four or five or eight Italians, all sizes and shapes, each one touching another or holding onto the cart, none but the mama ever breaking the chain to lift something off a shelf and into the cart.  This colorful parade had a purpose, each family a focus not to be disturbed.

The festive air was full, too, with sounds of chatter, and the friendly smell of espresso beans. Open-faced shops and bars lined the outside walls, so you could shop for jewelry or appliances, or snack on wine and paninos, if you weren’t up to browsing the aisles with your in-laws and all your cousins. Vendors hawked their wares and barkeeps listened lovingly, everything accented by an animated passion seldom seen in our self-service temples back home

I followed Jeanne to the liquor aisle at the far acre of the building, fascinated by the family carts parading past shelves of baked goods, cases of cheeses and stacks of pasta packages.  In a moment we had Jeanne’s booty and were making our way back to the front to rendezvous with the guys.

“Can’t find the ice,” Ernie said with a shrug, and gestured down the length of aisles.  Bill stood a few feet away, apparently hypnotized by the swarming masses of Tuscan shoppers.  (Had he moved in the minutes since we left him?  I couldn’t tell.)  True, just like your friendly neighborhood Albertson’s, there were endcaps galore, but none of those freezers piled high with plastic bags of ice.   Not a one.

I spotted a big machine that held some promise of aid. About the size of a freezer, it was painted chilly blue and silver, and insulated bags labeled with white and blue snowflakes hung nearby.   “Let’s try this,” I said to Jeanne, plucking a bag from the pole.  I figured the machine worked like the ones at the Riverwalk driving range: in goes the token, out come the golf balls.  Of course, I assumed the bounty would be ice in this case.

Alas, the instructions were in Italian with no familiar icons to help an illiterate, albeit thirsty, tourist unlock the mystery.  I couldn’t even find a coin slot to begin the process.  So close, yet so far away, I thought.  Jeanne handed Ernie her bottles, crossed her arms and stared as my stuttering searching went on, unrewarded.

“I’ll find someone to help,” she finally said crisply, walking around the corner, toward the cheese.  A moment later she returned with a pair of women, each with the inevitable hand-on-cart.  Then the pantomime began, Jeanne pointing to the machine and at the snowflaked bag, from the Euro in my hand to the bottles in Ernie’s arms.  She mimed shaking her glass, lifting it to her lips and drinking. Then she brought the imaginary tumbler down and pointed with her left hand into her cupped right hand, apparently at the invisible ice.  The women stared, smiling as if entertained but not enlightened.

The older one responded with a pantomime of her own, pointing at the blue machine, then at a kiosk near the door, and waving her hands back and forth across her chest.  “A trade? A swap?”  I asked, mimicking her waves.  She nods, “Si, si.”

It turns out that this machine churned out those hard blue plastic box things, the kind you freeze and put at the bottom of the cooler to keep the egg salad and turkey sandwiches from spoiling in the sun before you get to the picnic.  Apparently the system called for you to bring an uncooled one to the store, pay a fee at the kiosk up front, and deposit it back into the endcap machine, only to be rewarded with a fresh new frozen blue plastic box thing, ready and rarin’ to save your prosciutto and ricotta from spoiling in the sun before you get to the picnic.

But still, no ice.

Undeterred, inhaling heavily, Jeanne resorted to the tourist’s universal weapon, enunciating her question in loud, slow syllables, determined to pierce the language barrier.

“Ice,” she began.  “Ice,” she repeated.  “Ice for a drink,” she pantomimed yet again.  “HOW-DO-YOU-GET-ICE?” she ended, her final plea for the holy grail.

At that the younger woman stepped forward, smiled with a patience that we scarcely deserved, and said, plainly, “You get a tray and you pour water into it.  Then you put it in the freezer.  In a few hours you will get ice.”

And so it was, in the land of grapes and grappa, that Jeanne got her martini.  Apparently, when it comes to getting ice – in Tuscany or in California – we all speak the same language.

Here's the dinner table at our villa La Maesta (not visible: Bonnie and me).

Here’s the dinner table at our villa La Maesta (not visible: Bonnie and me).

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November 8, 2004