And How Trying a New Cereal Can Change Your Life
I had just turned ten, and my sister and I traveled to live in my father’s hometown with his family on the southern coast of the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. That was thirty-six years ago. While our sabbatical lasted for only a year, I did miss my America immensely, but I also loved that new adventure.
Except for breakfast.
The Sicilians just didn’t get it. Breakfast was a meal, and what I had learned in America was that it was the most important one of the day. It fueled you up. Got you moving. This was Sicily and cigarettes and espresso seemed sufficient for the adults and warm milk and stale bread was good enough for the kids.
Western civilization was rapidly catching up to Sicily, and there was at least one tiny grocery store in town that carried certain specialty consumer stables you couldn’t find at the regular mama and papa shops. This is where, I was told by my sister, that she had seen a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
God bless America.
I asked my sis why she didn’t buy any, already knowing the answer: She was broke too.
I wasn’t deterred and kept my ears open at the next opportunity to accompany my Aunt to the grocery store.
One late afternoon, I heard my aunt announce that she was walking to the store to buy some laundry detergent. To her delight, I tagged along and listened to this and that gossip about the other neighbors on our block.
The Sicilian version of the white picket, gossip fence is the balcony. In the city, everybody lives in apartment buildings no taller than four or five stories, and every household has a balcony that’s mainly a hanging, outdoor porch. I loved the balcony and could sit outside for hours, just watching the world go by. My aunt loved the balcony too because that’s where she could tune into everything coming from all of her neighbor’s apartments. She was nearly blind as a bat yet had the super, sonar echolocation hearing capabilities of one.
Once in the store and after the laundry detergent was acquired, I casually nudged my aunt down the aisle where, lo and behold, I saw a slice of America. It was so beautiful, and I was so proud. Wedged between some godawful looking boxes of German muesli, towering nearly twice as high, I pulled it off the shelf with tears in my eyes, respectfully wiped off some of the dust, and handed it to my aunt.
Feast your blind eyes ‘Zia.’ This is your future.
My aunt took the box and lowered her thick spectacles so she could squint. In Sicily, every movement is for the sake of drama. The squinting was just an act. She knew what I was doing and understood what I wanted. The box said to her: This is my home. But the price tag said: This is too much.
The squinting meant no way, Giuseppe. And that was that.
I had no money and nothing to offer her in exchange. It was no use haggling or proposing to do chores because household work was my aunt’s entire life. She cooked, cleaned, sewed, dusted, did the laundry, ironed everything including underwear, swept, and mopped the house in addition to the sidewalk outside every single day.
I was a male. Males don’t do any of those things. Ever. I had nothing to offer except reasoning. I appealed to her heart and her sense of wonder and adventure. I was persistent, like Dr. Seuss’ Sam-I-Am.
“Just try them, do something different, for once,” I pleaded. “You’ll like them. Trust me, you’ll love them!”
But she made up her stubborn mind. This box of America represented too much change. It was like asking her to surgically remove the hairy mole from her face. It was too overwhelming. What’s next? No more black dresses? Rice instead of pasta?
She wasn’t going to like cereal there. She wasn’t going to like cereal anywhere.
I needed a job.
Fortunately, I had an uncle in town who owned what’s called a tabacchino. It was a small shop that sold cigarettes. Sicilians are professional smokers. They smoked at home, in the streets, restaurants, bars, and yes, even in the hospital.
My uncle acquired the habit of smoking when he was only nine years old, during World War II. I think somebody explained to my grandpa that the smoke would keep away the germs and make sure his son’s body would remain healthy.
Considering that practically everybody smoked in Sicily, my uncle’s little cigarette shop was very profitable. For me, it represented access to some cold, hard Italian lira. It appeared that I found my job opportunity and began spending all of my free time there.
The tabacchino carried nearly every popular cigarette variety the world had to offer. He sold the mega-American classics like Marlboro, Winston, and Camel. But there were dozens of other brands like Nazionali, Diana, Zenit, MS, Alfa, Chesterfield, and Merit. Usually, each brand had variations like size or filtered and unfiltered options. Smokers would come in and purchase one pack, or frequently cases. This was old-school Sicily and without a cash register, my uncle had to calculate the amount of each purchase in his head including how much change must be given in return.
Years later, the country would begin cracking down on things like tax evasion, and a cash register was inevitably introduced by law to keep proper records. Fortunately for me, as a budding student of Sicilian cigarette sales, this was quite a compelling opportunity to apply math in the real world.
While hanging out in his shop, I also picked up the dialect and was conversing in Sicilian just as proficiently as the locals. I also recognized the cigarette-buying patterns of all the regular patrons. The farmer smokes this brand, the butcher smokes the other. At the time, I thought it was the best education I could possibly get.
I was ready to sell cigarettes.
From an American perspective, being only ten years old, I could see how one reading this might criticize either the child labor or selling cigarettes aspect of this story. Sure, Sicily was backward in many, many, many ways. Ice cubes were as rare as female, underarm razors. Men still wore speedos on the beach. Superstitions abound like waiting three tortuous hours to go swimming in the clear, beautiful Mediterranean waters after a single bowl of pasta.
I could go on and on, but things seemed to balance out perfectly when nobody would blink at a prime-time television commercial starring a topless woman. Nobody freaked out if I took a sip of red wine at the Sunday dinner table. Kids my age rode motor scooters without helmets throughout the city and did so with fantastic skill and mesmerizing precision. Whatever Sicily lacked in one area, they appeared to make up for in another. Everything evened out, and I was very happy.
I never had a heartwarming talk with my uncle about applying and becoming an employee in his shop. I just showed up and waited until he had to use the bathroom to successfully conduct my first cigarette sale without his permission. When he came out of the toilet, he saw me behind the counter, handling a customer like a pro. Without saying a word, he took an old wooden chair and sat outside, merrily greeting people as they walked or drove by on their Vespas and Fiats.
Each day I became more and more Sicilian. I began to refuse to converse with my sister in English. The customers who came in, once I opened my mouth, never realized that I was an Americano.
In the tabacchino, I learned how to play all the Sicilian card games and became quite good. I snuck my first cigarette ever and liked it; but then again, I didn’t know that I had to inhale and the experience probably would have been a lot different.
With larger amounts of Italian lira beginning to line my pockets, rather than purchasing a box of boring cereal, I started collecting soccer (calcio) stickers and placing them in albums. When I wasn’t in the shop selling cigarettes for my uncle, I walked and explored every street in the city. I was enjoying an immense amount of freedom and would frequent the bakeries to buy the best cannoli in the world and eat gelato whenever I wanted. And the bread? I only ate the freshest bread — the best on this planet.
I was ten years old and living large.
Eventually, my folks came to Sicily to reclaim their children. They made a pretty lame attempt at trying to settle in and make a life for us there; so one day, we just packed up and went back to America.
Back in the States, I had lots of catching up to do. The first order of business was drinking a tall glass of cold American milk. Then, I had to learn how to moonwalk and breakdance. Eventually, I shed my Italian accent, put the air back in the tires of my BMX bike, and became an American kid again.
The days would turn into years and the years into decades. Time would go by, and I would gradually settle into my beliefs. They became comfortable, like the new habits which transformed into old habits. Sure, I’d like to think that I’m liberal and open-minded, but in many ways I am just as stubborn as my aunt who lives her life in the same house, cooking the same meals, and cleaning the same floors as she did over thirty years ago.
While in Sicily as a young boy, I became a fan of soccer and had never wavered. I never bothered to watch American football, and one could say, I’m just as prejudice about this popular American sport as a hardcore Dallas Cowboys fan might be about mine. I’m generalizing, of course, but that’s precisely my point: I generalize.
It’s so much easier not to make a new decision and stick with what you already know and do what you’re already comfortable doing.
Trying something new means touching the unknown. It can be frightening and cause you to either fight or flee, rather than say yes. No should mean no and Sam I Am is a big pain in the ass.
Just leave me alone. The system is functioning fine the way it is. I like what I like, and you like what you like.
This is the way of the Sicilian aunt who I sometimes resemble.
It takes courage to change. Then again, why change when you really don’t have to?
The answer is: You don’t.
When you don’t change, everything appears to stay the same. And this is the antithesis of life.
Life is change.
Life is always changing.
It’s moving in one direction, and then another, and another like the wind. We are just caught up in the ride, trying to flow with all the familiar people and objects around us.
The act of trying to keep things the way they are is insanity. It’s an illusion.
If my aunt bought the cereal that day and if she mustered the courage to actually to try it, her entire world would have altered. If she had just accepted to try a new thing, as simple as eating cereal, she would have demonstrated immense bravery rather than fear.
That day in the grocery store, I wasn’t exaggerating; I actually did show her the future.
Over time, the American lifestyle inundated her country and her culture. It was only a matter of time before the mama and papa shops began to close and the large grocery stores became a permanent fixture. And yes, there is even an expanded aisle containing more than one American cereal.
Nobody eats warm milk and stale bread anymore.
I don’t mean to pick on my aunt, but the world around her has and will continue to change. By not saying yes to something new, she digs deeper and deeper into a life that is based on fear. But fear of what? Change? All things change. Just look at your own body. It’s not the same body you had a year ago, nor ten years ago. And one day, that body will be gone, melting back into this planet, the natural river of evolutionary change.
This is life.
When you try to control life, to keep it the same, seemingly safe and comfortable way as a morning bowl of warm milk and stale bread, you won’t be able to live it fully.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed.
Life Lessons from a Ten Year Old Sicilian Cigarette Vendor was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.