On a Saturday morning after our first coffee at Carlo’s, Lunchbox, the girls and I were strolling down the street after going to look at an open house. Carlo was at his gate and looked delighted to see us, immediately opening the gate and ushering us in with a “you have coffee?”
He puts the coffee on and then gives my husband the tour he had given me – first stop, the huge picture of his wife. I listen to him explain his sons and daughters again, and all his grandchildren, who lives where and who’s married to whom. He invites us to sit down and disappears into the kitchen.
He reappears with the cake again, and gives it to me. “Cut! cut!” he urges but I tell him we’re fine, we just ate. He asks the kids’ names again and I explain. “Whass your name?” he asks me and I reply. He frowns and looks at me suspiciously. “I not remember that,” he says. “Just call me Maria!” I say, laughing. He tells me to cut the cake again and I laugh and say really, we’re fine. By the third time he brings the cake up my husband tells him he’ll do it and Carlo waves at me dismissively. “ahhh, you no good!” he says with a fake angry face.
We ask some more questions about his family and he says “yes, big famiglia. But not trouble. Nobody has any trouble with anyone else. If there something, we sit. We sit at the table and we ask ‘what is it?’ and they say and then they shake hands,” he says, shaking his own hand. “No trouble. You must always…” and he gestures to the seats around the table.
“If you no treat special, no trouble,” he says, pointing at Smalls who is sitting on her dad’s lap. “You have kids, you treat equal. Not five dollar for dis one and fifty dollar for dat one,” he says. “You treat one special,” he says, giving himself a hug, “you treat dem all special. You no have favourite, you no have trouble.”
He starts again, determined to make his point learned from a lifetime of lessons: “you NEVER,” he says, stabbing his finger at Lunchbox, “you NEVER have favourite.” Lunchbox nods, he’s loving it.
I tell him that Carlo has been in this house 52 years, and Carlo grins. “You know how old I am?” he asks. Lunchbox starts the guessing at 75. “More!” Carlo says at every guess, stopping only at 93. Lunchbox looks at him, then me, then back to him again, incredulous. “I’m 93,” Carlo says. “Do I not look 93?”
I’ll tell you – no, he does not! 93 years old, doesn’t look a day over 75 and lives on spaghetti and licorice bullets. What a guy.
He tells us about how he moved to Australia when he was 31 and his wife had three young children. He explains why he chose Australia over Argentina (where his brother went) because of something his grandfather said when he was young. He gets out a map of Italy and points out where he was born and where he lived until he moved here, and then the suburbs in Melbourne he chose before finally settling down. He tells us of the jobs he worked, often both day and night, to provide for his family. For someone who has lived in Australia 62 years, his accent is still sometimes hard to understand.
He looks at Smalls sitting on her dad’s lap eating a licorice bullet. “I no remember my mother’s face,” he says, out of the blue. “She die when I very young. I have no photograph, no nothing, and I no remember”. He gestures to his walls, which are covered in pictures: “this why I have photograph EVERYWHERE now!” he says. “All da time, I put photograph. I not forget.”
He shows me a picture of himself when he was young, holding a cigarette he never smoked, and in a suit he took off straight away. “It just for the photo!” he laughs. “I never touch a cigarette.”
There’s a lull in the conversation and he suddenly yells “mangiare!” at us. We look at each other, confused. “Mangiare, mangiare!” he shouts, waving at the food. “you not know mangiare?” he says. “Eat! Eat!” He’s super unimpressed with our small appetites and probably what is the most boring conversation he’s had in a long time. I’m imagining a house full of loud, bold, gesturing Italians he’s lived in all his life and now here he’s sat with four polite white kids who come in his house who speak weirdly and not eat.
As we go to leave, Carlo spots the wine on the bench and gets mad at me. “Maria, why you not remind me of the wine?” he says with a scowl, and pours Lunchbox a massive glass to try. I laugh, remembering my own bucketful, and they geek out about grapes and the process as Carlo takes him out to show him where the magic happens. He also shows us his pasta drawer, and he was not kidding when he says his preference is still spaghetti after all these years. His pasta drawer is about the size of a suitcase and it is filled with Divella brand pasta. I make a mental note to switch from De Cecco, which I buy because Nigella uses it. “I likea da spaghett!” he says with a grin.
I round up the kids and go to walk out his front door and Carlo stops me, explaining I have to go out the same door I came in, according to superstition. “If you go out different door, you lose friend,” he says. I assure him I’ll always go out the correct door with a laugh and he shrugs. “Probably nothing,” he says “but just in case”.
We thank him for his hospitality (and the persimmons he’s just shoved into my hands with a “Maria, these are good now, you make jelly”) and walk down the alleyway toward our house. As I reach the end I glance back to see he’s stood and watched us the whole way. He gives one last wave and we go home.