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Non sono comunista!

Before traveling, many of us have been warned against the abuses and excesses of the ugly American tourist. We must be sensitive and respectful. We must be open and understanding. We must not wear leisure suits and track shoes. I prided myself on my cultural sensitivity, which is probably why I was so traumatized when, during one of my first outings in Italy, a fruit monger accused me of calling him a communist.

Buying fruit in Italy is an art. Fruit is beautifully displayed in baskets and stands, to be admired but never touched by the hands of the passing consumer. Picking up an apple for inspection in Italy is considered an act of aggression, one for which I was properly chastised repeatedly. Quickly I learned: ask for what you want, and the fruit monger, whose experience and knowledge of grape clusters is vastly superior to your own, will select exactly the right cluster to suit your needs.

Such a custom would never have occurred to me. In the US, you inspect each piece of fruit carefully, using techniques your grandmother taught you to make sure your melon is really ripe, your plums are not bruised, and your apple is crisp.

While I was packing for my trip, my mother sat on my bed and wistfully recalled her favorite memories of living in Europe. She told me about traveling around France and Italy on the back of a motorcycle, stopping at markets to buy bread, cheese and blood oranges for impromptu picnics. My ears perked up at the mention of the blood orange-even its name sounded exotic and decadent. This was in the days before yuppie grocery stores sold goods from around the world, and in our neck of the woods, even the kiwi was still regarded as a novelty.

So, in Siena, with a few hours to spare after my first day of class, I wandered around the market, looking for my first taste of Europe. I had memorized that useful phrase, "I would like..." I have found that this phrase and a strong index finger are all the communication tools you need for basic survival. Unless you are picky. Unless you want something specific-not just any orange, for example, but a dark red, sweet, tangy blood orange.

I found a charming fruit market and greeted the monger, a graying old man with a wizened face and sharp, appraising eyes. It dawned on me that I was not ready for this first transaction. I hadn't the slightest idea how to say "blood orange" in Italian. I tried a few variations-"orange of blood" brought looks of disgust and confusion. "Special orange" brought a torrent of language, none of which I understood. I settled on "red orange, you know? Red, red!"

My fruit monger gave up. He was a patient man, a fair man, but I now had clearly gone too far. This young, impudent girl not only touched his fruit, but insulted his character. "Non sono comunista!" he bellowed. He had a lot more to say, but to the untrained American ear, it sounded rather like, solononoglionomabuonomiaabonlagliono. Using my only other phrase of Italian-"excuse me!" I scooted away as quickly as I could, the entire market staring at me curiously. Later, nursing a latte and my bruised self-esteem, I was able to make the connection: red meant communist. All those words of warning had done no good: even without a leisure suit, I was still that ugly American tourist.

It was several more weeks before I mastered the art of buying fruit in Italy, and finally tasted a blood orange. Buying that piece of fruit was now more than honoring one of my mother's sappy memories, but a triumph of international commerce. It was delizioso!

By: Sarah Marlay of AmeriSpan

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