Blue mountains, halfway away from home

Strange American food and other tribulations in Harrisonburg, VA

Happy day after 4th of July. I hope your holiday was super American. In this guest post by writer and former CityBeat colleague Ombretta Di Dio, she recalls her experiences with small-town America after moving to the U.S. back in 2012. Hers is just one of millions of immigrant stories that serve as the foundation of our country, and I hope you enjoy. - Ryan

“What are jalapeños?” 

I asked this the first time I had a solitary lunch at one of the often-crowded eateries that populated downtown’s Main Street. I was more than proficient in English, but it took me a while to understand how ingredients are piled on top of each other on menus in America, sometimes even when those menu items end up being sophisticated versions of cheeseburgers and fries. 

I was confused and couldn’t figure out what I wanted. Did I want jalapeños on top of my food? 

“Next time, we’ll draw pictures on the menu,” said the 20-something server who, once again, had come to ask me if I was going to order or…?

“YES! I’ll get the tomato soup.” I nervously replied. Easy. Plain. One ingredient. What could go wrong?

As it turned out — garlic. A lot of it.

That wouldn’t have been my first or my last tragic experience with garlic in the States. 

For some reason, Americans assume garlic — which never sat well with my stomach — to be a staple of the Italian cuisine. They also firmly believe the pesky root belongs anywhere and everywhere, like some sort of magic powder with the potential of enhancing all types of dishes. 

It was the Spring of 2012, and a few weeks earlier, I had become a permanent resident of the United States of America. That’s when my first, elusive encounter with garlic took place. 

It was raining harder than a regular April back in Italy, and after driving four hours from Norfolk, where our plane had landed the day before, I already felt like tasting home all over again. 

Across the street from the hotel where my American ex-husband and I were staying, the entrance of an Italian restaurant beckoned. How naïve was I?

I ordered spaghetti, expecting something along the lines of a fresh, cherry tomato sauce and a leaf of basil to give the right amount of flavor to my simple meal. Instead, I got garlic with a side of pasta. 

I spent the following four hours throwing up regrets.  

Lesson learned: You don’t do Italian food from parking lot restaurants in America.

During my first six months in the US, I slowly peeled off all the stereotypes that two and half decades of American movies, TV shows and books had put in my mind. 

Apparently, no neighbor welcomes you with a homemade dessert and a smile when you settle into a new home. You don’t have interesting, witty and serendipitous conversations with strangers at the laundromat. The tradition of “trick or treating” on Halloween generally belongs to the most affluent neighborhoods — something I witnessed when I found myself with a bucket full of candies and no children at my door on the sour evening of Oct. 31, 2012. Old school diners are not easily found, and banana splits are not your typical everyday snack. I saw more SUVs than convertibles. Los Angeles and New York City, as portrayed in the fictional realm, are worlds apart that have little to do with the America that I found. The list goes on. 

The town that would be my temporary home for a year — Harrisonburg, VA — stretches at the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Washington, D.C. was a few hours away. Just one solitary, windy road connected Harrisonburg to the now-defunct, West Virginia military base where I lived with my newborn baby and my then-husband for the following two years.

I cursed that road more times than I can count. I threw up along the side of it just as many times, because my stomach struggled to adapt to the change of air pressure and elevation. For that reason, I dreaded each time I drove to town. 

Harrisonburg was a small college town, packed with eager, artsy students and with bitter locals who spent the long, cold winter complaining about upcoming graduation weekends and the associated traffic that would have made their daily trips to Walmart all the worse. These people thanked God for some “peace and quiet” as students left their dorms ahead of the short, humid summer.  

Downtown’s Main Street featured a handful of bars and restaurants that quickly filled up with youth each Friday afternoon. Their sockless moccasins didn’t make any sound as they strolled down the streets, but the students’ colorful, pastel shirts and khaki shorts never failed to clash with the hatred from the locals as the weekend approached. 

After that snarky server pressured me into ordering horrible tomato soup, I decided to make one more bad decision that afternoon by heading to the nearest Walmart. 

But if the choices on lunch menus proved far too many for my little, European heart to take, the dozens of cereal boxes at Walmart left a hole in my soul. Another truth learned: Choice doesn’t come easy to me when options are unlimited. 

I had been to the United States twice before, during school breaks — I graduated from law school a few months prior to moving here. From St. Louis to San Francisco, with plenty of stops in the middle, everything had seemed sparkly and exciting on my previous visits. 

Where was the curiosity that characterized my conversations with random individuals at Lollapalooza? Outside Lands? On the Chicago’s Red Line? These were not the experiences I had in Harrisonburg.

“Are you from Iraq?” asked a bouncer one night as I was entering a noisy bar. 

“No. I was born and raised in Italy. I am Italian.” 

This was the answer I gave every time someone asked me whether home was Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Russia, Bulgaria, Ireland (what?), Brazil, Spain, but, incidentally, never Italy. 

“But you didn’t actually go to law school, did you?” asked an old, local religious leader after it was confirmed that I was, in fact, from Italy and not whatever country he had guessed. After a while, the joke becomes a blur.

I knew that man was a religious leader because he told me so, and with his long beard, overalls and (possibly) 15 children, he sure looked the part to me. Who was I to contradict him? 

“As a matter of fact, I graduated a few months ago,” I shockingly replied as we all stood in the common space that divided my townhome from the one where one of his kids lived. 

“Getting a certificate as a legal secretary is not the same as being a lawyer,” he uttered. 

Mortified, I went back home. I opened the fridge to find a few sad slices of the cheese pizza we had ordered earlier that day. The stench of garlic immediately hit me in the face.

I closed the fridge and sighed. Home was nowhere to be found.