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June 20, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

An eye for the good life

Franco D’Angelo, Master Chef — who taught me how to make pasta e fagiole

(October 8, 1992)

Americans, as everyone knows, are among the friendliest people in the world. Unreserved and easy to talk to, you can get into a conversation with just about anyone.

During recent visits to the U.S. I talked to: a passport office clerk who discussed with me problems she was having with her daughter, and who sought my advice on a school to send her to. At a department store, a salesman told me about his opposition to his son’s upcoming marriage. In the dressing room of that same store, I helped a woman decide on a dress for her second wedding.

Last year I met an unemployed and homeless man who was kind enough to help me with my bags as I boarded a ferry. The father of two teenage sons, he confided that the possibility of a construction job in Kuwait at the end of the war in the Gulf was the best employment prospect he’d had in years.

During a visit to Rhode Island, America’s smallest state, I met one of those talkative taxi drivers for which the U.S. is famous. After seating myself in the back of the cab, I noticed a long crack in the windshield that stretched from the driver’s to the passenger’s side of the taxi.

“Er, uh, excuse me,” I said to the driver, “but isn’t that very dangerous?”

“Yeah. But what’re you gonna do?”

“Excuse me?”

“The kids throw rocks. They throw rocks when you pass. For no reason at all.”

“That’s too bad,” I said. I’d had the same experience driving across Turkey.

“Yeah, it costs a fortune. And if I get it fixed, it means I have to take my cab out of action for a week, so I lose money that way too.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and added a resigned “You can’t win.”

I was on the verge of agreeing with him when he went on.

“I’ve been driving a cab ny whole life. I’m sick of it.” And then turning half around, he looked at me and said, “I want to do what you do.”

“Excuse me?”

“I want to do what you do,” he said again, sounding absolutely certain about his decision to change his career.

“But you don’t know what I do,” I said. “Maybe you wouldn’t like it.”

“Oh, I’d like it,” he said, “I can tell. I want to do just what you do.”

“Well, I write.”

“You see. That’s what I mean. I want to write too.” His voice was now that of a man prepared to dedicate himself to his newly chosen profession.

“What do you write?” the taxi driver wanted to know.

“Well, I write columns for newspapers in Japan. And I wrote a book. A novel.”

“Japan! That’s just where I want to go to write. And I know that book’s going to be a bestseller. You’re going to be rich! Hanging out with all the big shots.”

I saw no reason to disabuse him of any of his ideas.

“You want a story? Here’s a story,” he said before I could reply. “I ran away with my girlfriend when she was 15 and I was 16. We got married, she had twins right away. We had two more kids and by the time I was 19 I was the father of four. Write about that in your book.”

I guess it could make a story.

“I don’t regret nothing. I love my kids. I love my wife. And she’s a great Italian cook. I eat like a king.”

I told him I like to cook Italian food myself, and he said, “Oh yeah? What’s your specialty?”

Pasta e fagiole,” I said without missing a beat, naming a bean soup an Italian friend who’s a chef here taught me how to make.

“You make paste e fagiole? I bet it’s good too.”

He had a smile as wide as the crack on the windshield when he let me out in front of the station. “You see, I could tell. You’re living the life. I knew I was right when I said I want to do what you do.”

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POSTSCRIPT

I’ve since thought of that taxi ride, and thought too that it is no longer common to find an Italian American taxi driver. 

And re-reading this, I am reminded that I would hardly go to a Passport Office (do they still exist?) to renew my passport anymore because it is done online. 

In recent years I’ve been in Tokyo a lot, and from time to time, I find myself in a conversation with a Tokyo taxi driver. The most memorable was with a taxi driver who confided he had four children (unusual in Japan these days, and even more unusual for people who live in Tokyo). He said he lived in a very small apartment. He was particularly worried about his eldest daughter, a teenager. I could empathize. As he dropped me in front of the university where I was working at the time, he realized I must be a teacher. I told him if I could be of some help, please let me know – and I gave him my card.

When I made pasta e fagiole in Italy last summer (2009) I received applause from the seven Italians gathered at the table! I felt I had done my teacher, Franco, proud. He always shared his recipes with me, with a clear admonishment and understanding that I would not tell anyone his secrets, the how and what of his dishes. More than anything, I learned from him the love of the good life — which is centered around sharing food and company with family and friends. 

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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