Wake Up and Smell the Orange Juice

This was the first essay I wrote for my English 325 course during the first semester of my senior year.  The assignment was a “change essay.” I was asked to choose an experience or moment that changed me as a person and to write 8 pages about it.  I chose to write about an experience I had in the food market during my semester abroad in Florence, Italy.  I used a seemingly small experience waiting impatiently at an orange juice stand in the market.  I used this instance to spiral into several other experiences that ultimately taught me that I was moving through my life way too quickly.  I learned that I needed to adopt the Florentine lifestyle more and slow down to appreciate many of the smaller moments and pleasures that I had been missing. I think I executed this fairly well by starting off with a small detailed moment and then using this example as a lens to discuss the greater lessons I learned during my time in Florence. I feel that this essay is a good example of how I have developed my own personal voice and tone, and have found new ways to express my personality through my writing.  Especially since this piece is about something I am very passionate about and about how I personally changed as a person, it is a good example of my expressive and reflective writing.  There is definitely a noticeable difference from my first essay in English 125 to this.

Wake Up and Smell The Orange Juice

My foot taps the ground harshly and impatiently as my arms cross tightly in front of my chest and I let out an obnoxious sigh of frustration.  We have been waiting in this line for over ten minutes.  How long could it possibly take to make a glass of orange juice?

The woman running the counter doesn’t seem to notice the annoyed look plastered across my face. In fact, I’m not even sure she notices me at all.  She is a tall, big-boned Italian woman.  She has short, dark brown hair, big rosy cheeks, and large twinkling brown eyes that are impossible ignore.  She wears a ratty pair of dark jean overalls, covered in splotches of espresso powder, and she has one of the loudest voices I have ever heard.  She has been talking non-stop (with enthusiastic hand gestures) to the customer in front of me for at least a full five mintes and in all that time I have not seen her move any closer to consummating her transaction.  And as I don’t yet speak much Italian, I had absolutely no idea what they were saying.   After my first week of studying abroad in Florence for the semester, the extent of my Italian was mostly still limited to “Ciao” and “Grazie.”  Whatever they were saying, it clearly had nothing to do with serving the growing line of thirsty customers.  The Italians just don’t seem to understand the concept of customer service.  I mean, if I were back in New York I could have gotten a grande, decaf, non-fat latte from Starbucks, taken the subway half-way across the city, and finished the New York times crossword puzzle in half the time that this is taking.

An Italian friend who I met in class, Massimo, has been insisting that I try this orange juice all week long.  He claims that if I truly want to experience Florence and understand the Italian lifestyle, I must try it.  But, as I stand in line fuming and waiting for this infamous citrus drink, I begin to question my sanity as I don’t even like orange juice that much.  And to make matters worse, this infernal wait is clearly going to make me late for my next class.  I’m pretty certain that this orange juice is not going to be worth the hassle.

Boy, was I wrong.  It was the best glass of orange juice I’ve ever had.  When it was finally my turn, I stepped up to the counter with the unmistakable look of impatience still plastered across my face.  I was ready to order my orange juice in my most obnoxious tone of voice just to make sure that the woman knew how annoyed I was for having to wait so long, but I never got the chance.  Before I could even open my mouth, her large hands grasped each side of my face as she shouted “Ciao, Bella!” and proceeded to kiss both of my cheeks.  She pulled away with my head still sandwiched in between her two hands, and as she looked at my face she started to chuckle.  I must have looked so startled and confused that all she could do was laugh.  It was the last thing I would have expected.  What kind of person grabs a strangers face and kisses them?  She finally released my face and stuck out her hand for me to shake while she blabbered something in Italian that I could not make out.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t speak any Italian,” I replied as I reached my hand out to meet hers.

“Well, we have lots to learn then!” She answered in a thick Italian accent. “Mi chiamo, Gianna” she said as she pointed both of her hands towards her chest.

“Mi chi-“ I stuttered, as she silently mouthed the correct word to me.  “Mi chiamo, Jordan” I somehow managed to get out.

“Bella! Bella!” she shouted as she clasped her hands together loudly.

“OK, now time for juice,” she said.

Watching Gianna make the orange juice was like watching a pianist dance her fingers delicately across the keyboard.  She was an artist at work.  Each orange was perfectly ripe.  And they were not ordinary oranges – some of them were blood oranges (or as I later learned arancia rossa).  As she sliced into each one, the vibrant orange and deep red colors burst into view.  She carefully placed each orange-half into her tiny juice press that looked as if it was at least 50 years old.  She used the entire weight of her body to push the lever down forcefully.  She pushed it down slowly and held it there, making sure that every last drop of the orange was squeezed out before moving onto the next one.   By the time she was done, the small glass sitting beneath the juicer was filled with a tantalizing and nearly irresistible, foamy swirl of red and orange.

As I took my first sip, I encountered the most delicate balance of both sweetness and tartness blended together into one perfectly refreshing glass.  I had never tasted anything so fresh in my life.  It was as if I had picked the orange straight from the tree, cracked it open, and began sucking out the juice directly from it with a straw.  As I sipped it, I found myself actively wishing that it would never end.

The orange juice was just one of the many gems that Florence had to offer.  After Gianna had treated me with so much kindness, even though I had acted so rudely while I waited in line, I felt pretty awful.  I had been so focused on getting that glass of orange juice as fast as possible so that I could get to my class, that I didn’t even stop to consider the beauty of the Italian people surrounding me.   I was acting so typically “American.”  As I walked hurriedly through the streets of Florence to my class, I couldn’t seem to shake this uncomfortable thought from my mind.  I began to wake up to the fact that I was just a guest in another culture’s symbolic kitchen.  It bothered me that my first instinct was to become so impatient and that I had acted so rudely to Gianna.

As I came to learn later over the course of many repeat visits to Gianna and her friend, instead of hastily tapping my foot and staring down angrily at my iPhone, I could have been watching an incredible 75 year old man named Adolfo sell his dried fruit and nuts at the stand just around the corner.  Or I could have peeked over at Manlio selling all kinds of exotic looking fresh fish.  Better yet, I could have passed the time staring at Franca rolling out her enormous mounds of pasta dough and magically transforming them into flawless strands of spaghetti.  But, at the time, I was too busy worrying about getting to my next destination on time to even notice any of these wonderful people.  Have I always been moving this quickly? Was I going to let myself miss out on truly experiencing this spectacular city just because I didn’t take the time to stop and smell the orange juice?

As a student at the University of Michigan, my life does tend to move at a fast pace.  I had just finished my first semester of junior year, and for the entire semester my mind was overwhelmingly consumed with my work and my future career.  It was a stressful balancing act of trying to get straight A’s to keep my GPA high while also frantically sending out applications to as many companies as possible, all in the desperate hope of securing an internship for the summer before I left the country for five months.  My mind had been constantly devoted to “networking” and “resume-building” in order to find a job and figure out what the hell I am going to do with the rest of my life once I graduate.  I was in an uncontrollable whirlwind of work, stress, confusion, and very little sleep.  By the time I got home for winter break and had to start packing for my semester abroad in Florence, I realized I had let the entire semester fly right by me.  How had it gone by so quickly when I felt like I had barely done anything? I remember being there, I remember going through all the motions of my days, but I don’t really remember it.  I wasn’t truly living it.  I was letting my life pass right by me, and I was missing the best parts.  I had dug myself into a deep hole of narrow-mindedness, and I only seemed to allow myself to focus on the end result.  I was missing what was going on right in front me.  What about right now?  My Dad’s favorite personal motto began to taunt me, “Carpe Diem, Jordan!” I could hear him saying in the back of my mind, “Sieze the day!”  He says this so often that it has started to become background noise.  Yet after a few days of living in Florence, for the first time in my life, the true meaning of this phrase started to sink in.

As I walked to class each morning, it slowly started to dawn on me that I was actually living in Italy.  This was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I was so unbelievably lucky to have.  This was not the time to rush through and focus on getting to the finish line.  This was the time to slow down.  It was the time to take in all of the beauty around me, to appreciate the delicious gourmet food at my fingertips, and to learn about the lives of all the wonderful people I was encountering.

It wasn’t long before I became a regular at the San Lorenzo Market.  It quickly became my favorite part of the day.  After tasting Gianna’s orange juice that first day, I could not stay away.  Admittedly, it took me a while before I was able to embrace the slow-moving process of getting my orange juice each time, but I soon found that my time spent talking to Gianna was well worth the wait.  She introduced me to many of her friends in the market, and I soon found a “favorite” stand for every item of food that I purchased.  By the end of my semester, each of them knew my orders by heart.  I would be welcomed with huge grin and a, “Ciao, Jordan!” as my ball of fresh mozzarella cheese and package of thinly sliced prosciutto was handed to me in a prepared plastic bag, as if Pino had known when I would arrive.  The same was true for every other stand.  They were all genuinely happy to see me each day.  They didn’t make fun of my pathetic attempts to order my food in Italian, but instead they enjoyed my wild series of gestures and hand signals that I used to indicate what I wanted to order.  They helped me with my Italian by talking to me about their lives and asking me about mine.  They told me about their families and taught me about their food.  And not just me, but all of their customers were treated this way.

Almost every true Florentine comes to the market once a day to buy fresh bread and fresh produce to cook for their families that night.  It is not the seemingly menial task of getting through your grocery list as it is in America.  It is not about Gianna maximizing her profit and selling the optimal amount of orange juices each day.   No, it is about much more than that.  It is an integral part of Italian culture and their daily lives.  This is their time to socialize, to share their stories, to catch up on how each other’s kids are doing, and to share the delicious food that brings them all together each day in this wonderful market.

I know it sounds like a cliché.  This is what the “abroad experience” is supposed to do, right?  It’s supposed to “change” you and give you a “deeper understanding of life.”  At least, that’s what all the brochures said.  I knew that this was “supposed” to happen, but I guess I never thought that it really would.  Everyone kept telling me I would come back a “changed person,” but what does that even mean? I went into the experience expecting to have a “moment.”  One defining moment of clarity where this huge change that everyone promised would just hit me all at once.  It did not happen like that.  There was no one single moment that changed my life forever.  For me, there was a series of moments.  The chef at my favorite sandwich shop who took me behind the counter and showed me how to slice the bread at the perfect angle so it doesn’t crumble.  The barista at the café next door who took the time to make a perfect foam heart on my cappuccino every morning.  The old man who rode by my apartment on his bicycle every Tuesday afternoon and rang his bell while he waved hello, even though he had no idea who I was.

As I became more comfortable with my daily life in Florence, I noticed that the city and its people were having a profound effect on me.  I had been moving way too quickly.  I was rushing to get to the next part of my life, but I didn’t even know where I was headed.  The people in Florence are not in a rush. They are not consumed by trivial issues or buried in their cell phones to the point where they ignore the human beings surrounding them.  Florentines live in the moment and are really there, not just passing through.  They are taking the time to smell, to taste, to share, to enjoy.  They are focused on building relationships, learning from each other, and fulfilling their personal passions in life.

I began cooking almost every night.  I bought fresh food at the market every day and tried out new recipes that my friends at the market had shared with me.  I have always loved to cook, but this was a completely different kind of cooking. Not only were the ingredients the freshest and most delicious I have ever tasted, but cooking in Florence was about something much grander than just the food.  My Italian teacher, Milva, was actually also a chef.  When she overheard me in class one day talking about the rigatoni I had cooked last night, she began to ask me if I like to cook and what else I had made in Florence.  She ended up inviting my four best friends and I back to her house in a suburb right outside of Florence that afternoon to cook dinner and eat with her family.

We spent hours preparing the meal together.  We made pasta dough from scratch and then used a small, delicate contraption to roll it out into a mountain of perfect strands of spaghetti.  Then we made the sauce using a beautiful array of fresh vegetables and herbs that we picked from Milva’s backyard garden.  And to top it all off, for dessert we made homemade molten chocolate lava cakes that were cooked for just the right amount of time so that warm chocolate spilled out as they were served.

We sat at the dinner table for hours of simply laughing, drinking wine, and sharing our delicious meal.  As I looked around the table and absorbed the whole setting, I could not help but smile. The glow of the candles on the table illuminated the smiles on each of our faces, and a feeling of warmth and delight consumed me.  This was what it was all about.  It was about taking the time to sit, enjoy, and share with the people who you care about.  This was not a special occasion for Milva’s family.  Dinner like this happens almost every night.  They took the time to slow down, to create something special and delicious that they can all share, and to just be with one another.

After our night at Milva’s house, I really understood why food was such an important part of the culture in Italy.  My friends and I began cooking more and more elaborate meals together almost every night.  We listened to music and danced through the kitchen using spatulas as microphones.  We sipped wine while we cooked and rejoiced together over the mouth-watering smells and tastes emerging from our ovens.   We laughed, we sang, we shared, and we ate!  We sat and talked for hours on end.  These meals became some of my most treasured memories from the whole trip.

My last week in Florence was pretty depressing.  It was so sad to visit all of my favorite spots for the last time.  On my second to last day, I took a walk to the market in the morning to get a glass of Gianna’s orange juice.  There was already a pretty long line when we arrived, but this was very common for Gianna’s stand at this time of day.  I gave Gianna a wave and a smile as she shouted back “Ciao Jordan!”  As I took my place in line, I noticed the girls in front of me were both tapping their feet loudly and almost in unison.  Their Lulu Lemon workout pants and Longchamp shoulder bags stuck out like a sore thumb, immediately revealing their identity as American tourists.  I recognized the stance.  Arms crossed tightly across chest, feet tapping loudly, and rude groans escaping their lips every so often. I recognized how far I had come and I saw in them my old self.  I wanted to shake these girls’ by the shoulders and say, “wake up!”  I wished I could tell them to stop wasting their time trying to get somewhere else when they should be savoring every second right here and now.  But it was no use. There was nothing I could say to them that would make sense.  All I could do was hope that Gianna’s incredible personality and even better tasting orange juice would force them to wake up to the beauty of the market and people around them so that, like me, they would seize the day.

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