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Ice Cream in Italy
Most people like ice cream. Most people have a favorite flavor of ice cream. Maybe it’s vanilla or chocolate or butter pecan or mint chocolate chip or strawberry fudge or whatever that disgusting rainbow colored one is called.
I am here to tell you that ice cream is cold milk smashed into a cone that has the consistency of cardboard. And you’re supposed to eat it. Ice cream is not that great. But of course, I’m not supposed to tell you that. Telling you that is pretty much betraying my family, because I am a Johnston.
If you live in Mayville, Kansas (and if you do, you have my greatest sympathies), you would know why being a Johnston makes me such an ice cream expert. It’s because the Johnston family, my family, runs the only ice cream shop, I’m sorry, shoppe, in Mayville. Milton’s Ice Cream Shoppe. It was started by my great-grandfather, Milton Johnston, and has been a Wholesome Family-Owned Small Business for three generations (that’s what the brochures say).
I come from a long line of ice cream providers.
Great-Grandpa Milton was followed by his son, my grandfather, who was followed by his son, my father, and his daughter, my Auntie Ellie Mae (get it? Mae, Mayville? All the women in my family have the middle name Mae. No, I’m not joking.). My brother Sam is next in line to the throne. And let me tell you just one thing: he is welcome to it.
You see, I, Alice Mae Johnston (yes, that really is my name. No, I’m not joking), do not plan to spend the rest of my life scooping butter pecan into sugar cones. I do not plan to spend the rest of my life wearing an apron the same color as bubble gum ice cream, with a paper hat to match. I plan to spend the rest of my life wearing haute couture doing - well, I’m not exactly sure what I plan on doing. But it’s going to be sophisticated.
I’ve already told you about half my life: the ice cream part. I haven’t told you about the other part of my life. The fashion part. I live for fashion. I am quite possibly the first fashion-obsessed person in Mayville. I am definitely the first fashion-obsessed Johnston.
I’m not talking about “fashion” from the Dairyfield Shopping Center (there are no malls in Mayville - surprise, surprise). I am talking about fashion fashion. I am talking about the stuff of New York Fashion Week. I am talking about the pages of Vogue. Tragically, I don’t actually have any of those kinds of clothes. So I settle for the next best thing: magazines. Teen Vogue. Vogue. Italian Vogue. Elle.
Anything I can get my hands on (and in Mayville, that’s not always a lot). I even got a years’ subscription to the New York Times just for the Style section on Thursdays and Sundays. Let me tell you one thing: those Style sections make Super Sundae Sundays a whole lot more bearable.
Even as I’m thinking about all this, I’m flipping through an old InStyle. My mother thinks I’m doing my homework, but I finished that an hour ago. As long as she thinks I’m doing my homework, though, she can’t recruit me for scooper duty.
“Alice Mae?” Mom calls. “You still working on that math?”
I’m trying to decide whether to lie or not when she pushes open the door to my room. Hurriedly, I push my magazine under my Algebra II textbook and pretend to be thinking about how many miles per hour Raj has to drive if he wants to be at Lakisha’s house by 4:16 (Problem 7, Set B, page 279).
But my mother sees right through me. “Alice Mae,” she says sternly, and as usual, I wish that my name were Alicia, and not Alice. “Your aunt and your brother need you down stairs. Get your apron on and get down there. The Junior Glee Choir is down there,for crying out loud!”
“What a crisis,” I murmur as softly as I can.
“Alice Mae,” says my mother. “I do not appreciate your sarcasm. Now get.”
I am met by an uproar. The Junior Glee Choir always comes after their Thursday night practices, and their arrival always causes a chaotic mess at Milton’s Ice Cream Shoppe.
I tie my apron around my waist and look down at my four foot tall customer. It’s Janie Lewis. Inwardly, I groan. Outwardly, I smile and say, “Welcome to Milton’s! May I offer you a sample?”
“No, I know exactly what I want! Double Chocolate on a waffle cone with Rainbow Sprinkles,” says Janie proudly. But no sooner have I prepared her cone than she says, “Umm, actually, can I have Reese’s Pieces Chunk?” Behind her, other impatient Junior Glee Choir members shout out their requests.
I grit my teeth and begin to scoop. Thus begins the slog. Scoop, scoop, scoop, spill, wipe, scoop, sprinkle, make change, scoop, make change, scoop, make change, scoop, spill, wipe up. Over and over and over.
Seven waffle cones and three sugar cones later, the Junior Glee Choir members finally file out the door. But it’s still not over. It’s unseasonably hot for May, and Milton’s Ice Cream Shoppe is apparently the place to be.
Then I see what I know is my saving grace. Melissa Cuthbert, golden girl of Mayville High glides gracefully through the doors, and the bells on the door jingle their nerve-grinding jingle. She’s surrounded by her usual gaggle of friends (and followers), and everyone in Milton’s pauses to gaze at her, their plastic spoons suspended halfway to their mouths.
I said she was my saving grace. Now let me explain why. As soon as he heard Melissa, my sixteen year old brother Sam bolts out of the office where he was probably playing World of Wizardry on the accounting computer.
Sam pushes me out of the way. “Here, Alice, I’ll get these customers,” he says with what might have been a winning smile were it not for the Laffy Taffy stuck in his braces.
Great, I think, Now you’ll help me. Where were you when the Junior Glee Choir was here?
I find malicious pleasure in listening to Sam bumble. “Can I, uh, you know, uh, offer you an, um, I mean, a free sample?” he asks Melissa. It is possible that Sam possesses hidden gifts I don’t know about. Verbal acuity is not one of them. (I learned the word “acuity” in one of the SAT prep books I bought when it occurred to me that high test scores could get me out of Mayville.)
I move out of the way anyway, and slump against the wall next to the water cooler. I’m desperate for something to drink, but then I remember that thanks to Milton’s Ice Cream Shoppe’s effort to Go Green, we no longer have paper cups. Muttering darkly under my breath, I try to remember where my reusable water bottle is. I mutter my way right into . . .
Mrs. Dawes. My World Studies teacher.
After I got over the shock of seeing a teacher outside of school, I remember my manners. “Good afternoon Mrs. Dawes, welcome to Milton’s. May I offer you a free sample?” I recite.
“Well don’t you sound professional!” says Mrs. Dawes approvingly. “No thank you, Alice Mae. I actually came here to talk to you.” I gulp.
Mrs. Dawes smiles reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Alice. I was actually here to talk about your Foreign Exchange Student Program application.”
The ice cream scoop I’m holding slips from my hand. I’d completely forgotten about my application, which I submitted months ago. Back in March, Mrs. Dawes had said she’d try to arrange something, but that spots were limited. For some mysterious reason, the Foreign Exchange Student Program is extremely popular in Mayville.
“You listed Rome as your first choice?” she says, and I realize that Mrs. Dawes is waiting for me to respond.
“Oh - oh yeah,” I say breathlessly. Rome! It’s one of the fashion capitals of the world.
“And I told you that three students had already signed up to go to Rome this summer?” I heard Mrs. Dawes say, and I snapped my attention back to her, waiting. Had they opened a fourth spot? “Well,” she continued, “Christine Summers broke her leg , and will not be fit to travel.”
“That’s fantastic!” I think, or at least I thought I was thinking it, until I caught sight of Mrs. Dawes raising a heavily-penciled eyebrow at me. I shrink.
“As I was saying,” Mrs. Dawes frowns, “You were next on the list to go to Rome. Now I know it is short notice, but are you interested in taking Christine’s place with the Bianchi family on June 20?”
I try to breathe deeply and try to keep myself from hyperventilating. I fail. “Yes!” I squeak.
“And your parents are still supportive of you leaving the country for a month?” Mrs. Dawes asks.
“Um, I’m sure they are,” I say, some of my elation seeping out of me. When I asked my parents to sign the application two months ago, they had both been pretty preoccupied preparing for the 25th Annual Winslow County Dairy Festival. And it’s very possible that I didn’t exactly tell them what it was they were signing.
Mrs. Dawes’s eyebrows travel further up. They are in grave danger of disappearing beneath her bangs. I wonder how long she’s been the head of the Winslow County Foreign Exchange Student Program, and how many students she’s seen try to sneak out of the country.
“Well then I’m sure my talking through the details with them won’t be a problem. Alice Mae, are your parents around?”
Again, I gulp.
Dinner is a quiet affair. Sam is talking to no one in particular about his most recent conquest in World of Wizardry. Dad is chewing slowly on his chicken pot pie. I squirm. When my dad chews slowly, it means he’s thinking about something serious. Usually, that means a shortage of Mint Chocolate Chip. Today, I have a nasty feeling he’s thinking about my (possible) trip to Italy.
My mom’s lips are pursed, and her supper is untouched on her plate, cold and forgotten. Aunt Ellie Mae is polishing off her second helping, oblivious to the mounting tension.
Sam drones, Dad chews, Mom purses her lips, Aunt Ellie Mae eats, Sam drones, Dad chews, Mom purses her lips, Aunt Ellie Mae eats, the clock ticks. Suddenly, Sam pushes back his chair, and it makes a screech on the floor like nails on a chalkboard. Everyone winces.
“May I be excused?” he asks. “I have a battalion of elves waiting on a precipice for my Supreme Warlock’s orders -”
Dad holds up a hand. “Wait a minute, son. We need to talk as a family about your sister.” Dad glowers at me. Let me tell you one thing: for someone who runs an ice cream shoppe, my father has a pretty substantial glower.
“Do we?” I ask, my voice a squeak.
“Yes,” my mother answers for Dad. “We do. Obviously, this could be a wonderful and educational learning experience for you.”
I nod enthusiastically, as though I want to go to Rome for a wonderful and educational learning experience.
“And thanks to the Foreign Exchange Student Program sponsors, money isn’t so much an issue,” Mom continues. I hold my breath. But my mom’s eyebrows are raising, just like Mrs. Dawes’s did.
“What is an issue, Alice Mae, is the fact that your father and I had no idea you applied to leave the country.”
“I didn’t know either,” Aunt Ellie Mae puts in.
Three adults glare. Sam glares too, because my desire for a wonderful and educational learning experience is keeping him from his battalion of elves.
I swallow. “I gave you the form! You signed the form! I gave it to you, honestly -” I say. Then I gulp. I know I’ve made a mistake. My mother has a strict belief that people who say the word “honestly” are lying.
Mom’s lips are pursed so tightly it’s a miracle she’s able to open her mouth and speak. But speak she does. “Alice,” she says, laying her hand on mine. I’m unsettled. I didn’t plan for this when I drafted my persuasion speech. “You’ve never left Kansas .” I wince. That’s not actually something I like for people to know. Mom goes on, “You’ve never left Kansas and you want to go to Rome? Seems like a mighty big jump to me.”
Before I can say anything, Aunt Ellie Mae puts in, “Why don’t you try out St. Louis? You know, as a warm up for being away from home?”
“It’s a Foreign Exchange Program, Aunt Ellie,” I say, rolling my eyes. “St. Louis is in Missouri.”
“Watch your tone, Alice Mae,” Mom says sharply. Anxiously, I wonder how much my “tone” has cost me.
“Why don’t you go to Canada, then?” asks Aunt Ellie Mae. “Canada is foreign, isn’t it?”
I slump in my seat, something I never do for fear of ending up with osteoporosis like my Great Aunt Wanda. I put my head in my hands. I love my Aunt Ellie Mae, but she’s exactly the reason I need to leave the country. Or to be more specific, the continent.
“I didn’t sign up to go to Canada,” I say as slowly as I can, to make absolutely sure that my voice is completely and utterly tone-free. “It’s arranged so I can go to Rome. I got these books about Rome and about Italy, see?” I hoist When In Rome and An Idiot’s Guide to Traveling Italy up to show my family. “And I got these booklets of Italian phrases! I can already say “please” and “thank you”!” I say, hoping to appeal to my mother’s passion for good manners.
A tiny smile is playing at the corner of Mom’s lips. She looks from me, waving my Italian booklets in the air like a maniac, to my father, who clears his throat. “You do realize that if you go to Italy, you’ll miss the Kansas Dairy Fair?” he asks.
“I know, and I’m sorry and I’ll work extra extra hard before I leave!” I say. “I’ll - I’ll -”
I wonder what else I’m going to have to do to. Grovel? Sell my soul? Then I realize that my dad is smiling.
“I know you will, Alice Mae,” he says gruffly. “I know you will.”
“Does that mean . . .?” I ask. If my voice had been a squeak before, it just went up an octave. My parents look at each other and nod.
I scream. I’m squealing so loudly, I almost drown out Sam’s shout of, “That’s not fair! You didn’t let me go to the World of Wizardry Conference in January!”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, you’re the best, I love you, I’ll work really hard in the shoppe, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!” I’m practically wheezing.
“Don’t push it,” advises my mom.
The rest of May flies by, my freshman year disappearing in a cloud of Italian phrases and preparations.
But if attempting to learn a language in less than a month is hard, packing is harder . Nothing in my closet, nothing in any of my friends’ closets, nothing at the Dairyfield Shopping Center seems to deserve being taken to Italy. I comb every magazine I own for inspiration, but none comes. Every night, I pace in front of my open closet and stare at my calendar. I only have one more week to decide. Four days. Three days. Two days. One day. There has to be something. There has to be. I tear apart my closet, but that only destroys my complicated and color coded organizational system.
I sit on the floor, staring at the blue clothes that got mixed up with the white clothes and the pink clothes and the green clothes, and I bury my face in my hands. There’s a knock at my door.
“Alice Mae?” it’s my mom. “Are you packed yet?”
“Um, sort of!” I call back.
Mom pushes my door open. “Alice Mae!” she scolds. “Either you pack your suitcase right this minute or your aunt and I pack for you!”
I shudder. And I pack.
Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve never been to an airport before. No matter how hard I try to pretend that I’m an international fashion mogul who hops on and off planes every day, I’m overwhelmed.
As I get in line for security, my parents and Aunt Ellie Mae envelope me in enormous hugs. To both of our surprise, Sam gives me an awkward, one-armed half-hug. Mom is sniffing, Ellie Mae, of course, is bawling, and even Dad looks teary-eyed.
I’m getting choked up when Aunt Ellie Mae randomly asks me whether I packed hairnets “because you just never know when you might need one”. I remember why I wanted to go to Italy.
“Okay, okay, guys, I have to go!” I say, wriggling out of their iron grips.
They drown each other out in their chorus of “We love you”s and “Be safe”s and “Have fun”s.
“Love you too,” I say, and a beefy security guard waves me through the metal detectors.
By the time I board my plane, I’m weighed down with at least five pounds of fashion magazines - the selection at the airport was ten times better than at the Mayville Shop ‘n’ Save. I need these magazines. The flight from Kansas City to Rome is about seven hours. But I figure transatlantic travel can’t be any more painful than a three hour car trip from Mayville to Topeka with my family.
To my absolute shock, the thought of my family belting out “Ninety-Nine Cones of Ice Cream on the Wall” makes a lump rise in my throat, so I open Vogue Italia and try to distract myself from homesickness. But as the plane hurtles into the sky, I can’t read, not even Vogue. I’m flying away from ice cream and Mayville and Kansas. I press my nose against the glass of the window. This is it!
After a long and cramped flight, I almost cry with relief when the pilot’s heavily accented voice tells the flight attendants to “pleez preepare for ze landing”.
But the Rome airport brings new problems. If I’d thought the airport back home was overwhelming, being in a considerably larger airport full of people shouting what seems like every language except English is like being swept over by a tidal wave. I leap out of the way of a careening golf cart and press myself against the wall, my eyes closed. How am I ever going to find the Bianchis? And what terminal did they say they’d meet me at?
Alice! I reprimand myself. Snap out of it. This is what you’ve been waiting your whole life for. I open my eyes and drink in the Fiumincino Airport. I’m not in Kansas anymore, I think. But unlike Dorothy, I couldn’t be happier.
“Alice?” asks a tall, perfectly coifed woman with olive skin and a sleek bob. It takes me a few moments to recognize her from the photos Mrs. Dawes gave me. But there’s no mistaking it - it’s Signora Bianchi. “Alice!” she exclaims, and her accent makes my name sound like ‘Aleez’. “It’s you!”
I smile shyly and nod. Before I know it, she’s hugging me. I don’t know what to do - we’re not big huggers back in Mayville. Behind Signora Bianchi stand two people who can only be the mustached Signor Bianchi and their long haired daughter, Isabella.
As the Bianchis usher me into the car, I’m too exhausted and jet lagged to do much of everything. “Poor Alice!” Signora Bianchi coos. She turns to her husband and lets out a stream of Italian. Turning back to me, she says, “We know just the thing!”
Signor Bianchi pulls the car in front of what looks like a little cafe. I can’t get used to the fact that it’s the middle of the afternoon when I feel like it should be at least midnight, and I blink violently in the sunlight.
A few minutes later, I’m sitting down at a tiny circular table on the sidewalk. Couples stroll by hand in hand, warm air tickles my skin, and Italian washes over me.
“Close your eyes!” Signora Bianchi instructs dramatically, and I do as I’m told. I hear the clatter of a bowl and spoon on the table. I’m imagining all sorts of Italian delicacies with long and unpronounceable names.
“Aaaaand, open!” Signora Bianchi cries. Isabella giggles. I open my eyes. I look down. It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s . . .
It’s a bowl of ice cream.