My junior year of college, I studied abroad in Rome. In “Eat, Pray, Love” (gag me for making a reference to this book), Elizabeth Gilbert talks about cities having words. New York’s was, I don’t know, dirty? Gross? Or something? Paris’ might have been love, and Rome’s she said undoubtedly was sex. She has a point. Rome is a sexual city, despite how religious it is. Couples entwined on the streets, at fountains, in busses. Couples strolling hand in hand, dancing breast-to-chest, whispering, feeding each other long strings of pasta. It’s hard to ignore. Naturally, when you study there, some part of you hopes you’ll stumble across an Italian man with gorgeous curls, clad in a leather jacket, and he’ll whisk you off on his moped for a day of wine-drinking, mozzarella-eating and passionate love-making. Or whatever.
While the classmates at my tiny Italian school (there were maybe 30 of us total in my program, so it felt more like summer camp than study abroad) had romantic trysts in bars and piazzas, I set my sights a little closer to home (and belly). There was a lunch shop called Forno via Firenze down the street from my school. It crowded with Italian businessmen shouting out meat preferences. Most days, I’d buy a sandwich there (like the one above). They were great – fresh cheese, wonderful bread, blah blah it was Italy you get the point. The shop was run by a family, but I only saw the brothers. And that’s how I met the Sandwich Man.
His actual name was Cristiano. He wasn’t all that attractive on paper (mid-30s, still working in his parents’ sandwich shop, gelled, spiky hair), but add in an Italian accent and delicious food, and I was sold. He didn’t speak English. I’d buy my sandwich and Coke, and I’d flirt heavily by saying things like “grazie” (thank you) and “ciao” (goodbye). It was all very steamy.
My last month of the program, I decided to ask him out. I don’t know where I got the nerve, but many of my program’s teachers were young and easy to talk to, so by that point, the entire school basically knew I had the hots for the Sandwich Man. On a slip of paper, I wrote in Italian, “Would you like to have Indian food with me?" and left my number. At the register one day, I slipped the note to him, face down. He moved to pick it up, and I freaked out and said, "Wait! Ciao!” and then bolted out of the shop so I wouldn’t have to see his face turn from confusion to embarrassment.
I was jittery, and we had wine class in the evening (yeah, I took a wine class in Italy, sue me), so by the end of the day I was tipsy and nervous and constantly checking my phone. Around 11 that night, I received a message from the Sandwich Man, in Italian. What I thought he said was something like, “You’re nice, but no thank you.”
In the morning, my teachers asked, “Well, what happened??” and I showed them my phone dejectedly. Elisabetta, my Italian teacher said, “Malia, he’s not turning you down. He’s saying he thinks you’re cute!” and Davide, my other teacher, chimed in and said, “Yes, and he texted you after 10 p.m., so you know what that means.”
That day, Elisabetta accompanied me to the sandwich shop. The Sandwich Man rang us up, and they spoke briefly. He gestured at me and smiled. I demanded to know what was said. “I told him I was your teacher, and he said, ‘You have a very nice student, and I will have to learn English for her,’” Elisabetta told me. I turned red.
The Sandwich Man and I texted a bit, but as you can tell is the general theme with these stories, things went South fast. Not that kind of South. South as in downhill. I tried to make plans with the Sandwich Man, but he evaded meeting with lame, Italian, family-centered excuses like “I am sorry, but my brother and I are fighting! He is the owner of the shop! It was a long fight!” and “I am sorry, but we are visiting my grandfather this weekend, he is very old, so I am away!”
“He has a girlfriend, obviously,” my teachers said, shrugging it off. “Do you care? You are leaving soon anyway.”
I tried to ignore the fact that my educators were possibly advising I knowingly become the other woman. I mean – YOLO, I guess?
I started to get the idea this wasn’t working out. When I went to the sandwich shop, Cristiano no longer appeared to ring me up. Davide went with me to order in a show of support, and said Cristiano came up behind me, saw who I was, and scampered into the back of the shop before I could see him.
It was alright, though. I was glad I’d given him the note. It led to a lot of teasing from my classmates, and Davide still writes “Happy Bread Day” on my Facebook wall for my birthday with pictures of celebrities like “Bread Pitt.”
Oddly enough, the story does not end here. A year later, I discovered the Facebook page for Forno via Forenze. Its profile picture showed Cristiano in his apron. Just him. I liked the page as a joke. Another year went by, and one day, I received a notification that I had been made co-administrator of the Facebook page, along with an Italian girl I’d never met. She angrily messaged me and asked why she had been made an admin and said she would call the police, then removed herself from the group. Leaving me…as the sole administrator of the Facebook page of a sandwich shop in Rome, a role I have retained to this day. I have no idea why.
For a more illustrated version of this story, check out the comic book I made for my Italian class, “L'Uomo Panino” (the Sandwich Man). It’s pretty snazzy.