A Tavola (Long Way Home)

Posted on August 14, 2015


A piece I wrote for the Asia-Europe Foundation ‘Long Way Home Short Story Contest’.


The events of my sister’s life may signify that — if there was any — God of Good Fortune was on her side. Above all, I felt fairly relieved that my little sister who had always read more fiction than newspaper was getting married to an Italian man she met in an NGO project. Although her naïveté charm may suggest otherwise, she was clearly not the type to ensnare a foreign man with superficial quality. She would never yield to the desire of patron, albeit being a simpleton.

Sandwiched between my “office life” and her activities, our communication had always been poor. It was when she broke the news last month that she finally asked me for help. So I had my hands full with shipment from Jakarta to Perugia, which for a sentiment I couldn’t articulate, contained old stuffs from our parents’ house, including a not-so-small dining table. Was there any other way to express happiness for a sister who was throwing a wedding somewhere in Italy and invited her only sister? After all, I was glad and at the same time curious about how she made it with this man named Michele.

As my plane took off on its way to transit Dubai, I had the sinking feeling that this trip was not going to be a sightseeing slash shopping spree. I spent my second flight to Rome mainly watching a documentary about winemaking family in Tuscany, felt asleep, and woke up to a mid-aged Italian man spraying perfume generously. Only then I admitted that traveling always have a glamorous side in retrospect.

Later on my train ride to Assisi, it was all picturesque landscape satisfying to the senses. My impression about Michele’s family house was not entirely wrong, although it wasn’t some romantic holiday villa. It was a moderate farmhouse with olive groves surrounding stonewall. It did have acres of land like the documentary I watched, only with a herd of cows.

“It’s ‘mee-keh-lay‘”, Michele grinned as he almost swung me with his hands after I mispronounced his name as ‘mee-shell‘.

My sister’s future in laws consisted of 13 people, including his father, mother, grandfather, uncles, aunts, and cousins. Fashion-wise, they were lively and had big reactions on everything. Nonno, Michele’s grandpa, always reminded everyone to tell me he wasn’t yelling.

It wasn’t a slow burn. Dinner came right and to my embarrassment, an enormous quantity of food was presented to me. Most of them were products of their organic farms, like olive oil and pecorino and ricotta. My sister suggested me to eat them in frenzy, as everyone just intuitively did.

It was getting late as the dinner turned to a more serious talk. I looked at my sister, whose exuberance I failed to recall. When she had told me she was going to marry an Italian man, I didn’t listen carefully. I was sure she was going to be happy, but that was all. That moment, I felt this strange, primitive nostalgia for familiar surroundings. I wondered, when was the last time I had this kind of family dinner? I supposed it was 15 years ago on Lunar New Year when mom and dad were still around.

It was a brief three days in Assisi as I began to settle in. I became accustomed with the clamor and laughter, espresso here, espresso there. Pasta for starter, main course, even at the sleepy stage of the meal.

The wedding day came and it was perfect. Nobody was holding back tears. That said, my job was done here. Later on the evening, I sat on the porch wondering where in my body was going to hurt by tomorrow’s jetlag. Normally, only tedious thoughts could calm my physical stress. I blamed my “city life” nerves and my lonely-hearts relationship with my work. But there I was, caught up looking back at all differences between my sister’s every world and mine. Once a clumsy girl whose realities diametrically opposed to mine, how could she now have the security of fixed lives and plans?

Suddenly, Michele approached and sat on my side.

“Are you really leaving tomorrow?”

I smiled.

“You know.. Dina once told me that you’re the one who had to grow up quickly. After your parents were both gone, she became really dependent on you.”, he continued.

“She was really happy that you sent the table. It’s her only family keepsake here.”, Michele stopped for a moment.

“She would be happy if you could stay longer.”

All at once my irritation passed. I reflected on our girlhood innocence I had left behind and it whirled me, unraveled everything I took for granted. I came to reason that moment without defining it. Yes, this visit was not a trip of vacation. It was a revisit to where we once belonged, no matter how time had distanced us apart.

“Ah, and Nonno needs to talk more about the town you two grew up in. He really thinks that macaques flock around like street cats.”

I laughed almost hysterically, and somehow it sounded Italian.

Posted in: culture, fiction