The lunch box

From Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City (1963)                       Lucignano

The joys of that round and flat vessel, or lunch-box, known as the « pietanziera », consist first of all in its having a screw-on top. The action of unscrewing the cover already makes your mouth water, especially if you don’t yet know what is inside, because, for example, it’s your wife who prepares the vessel for you every morning. Once the box is uncovered, you see your food packed there: salami and lentils, or hard-boiled eggs and beets, or else polenta and codfish, all neatly arranged within that circumference as the continents and oceans are set on the maps of the globe; and even if the food is scant it gives the effect of being substantial and compact. The cover, once it has been removed, serves as a plate, and so there are two receptacles and you can begin to divide the contents.

Marcovaldo, the handyman, having unscrewed the lid of his box and swiftly inhaled its aroma, grabs the cutlery that he has always carried in his pocket, wrapped in a bundle, ever since he began eating his noon meal from the lunchbox instead of returning home. The fork’s first jabs serve to rouse those benumbed victuals a bit, to give the prominence and attraction of a dish just set on the table to those foods that have been cramped inside there for so many hours. Then you begin to see that there isn’t much, and you think: « Best to eat it slowly. » But, rapid and ravenous, the first forkfuls have already been raised to the mouth.

The immediate sensation is the sadness of eating cold food, but the joys promptly begin again as you find the flavors of the family board transported to an unusual setting. Marcovaldo has now begun chewing slowly: he is seated on a bench by an avenue, near the place where he works; since his house is far away and to go there at noon costs time and

tram tickets, he brings his lunch in the box, bought for the purpose, and he eats in the open air, watching the people go by, and then he refreshes himself at a drinking fountain. If it’s autumn and the sun is out, he chooses places where an occasional ray strikes; the shiny red leaves that fall from the trees serve him as napkins; the salami skins go to stray dogs, who are quick to become his friends; and the sparrows collect the bread crumbs, at a moment when no one is going past in the avenue.

As he eats, he thinks: « Why am I so happy to taste the flavor of my wife’s cooking here, when at home, among the quarrels and tears, the debts that crop up in every conversation, I can’t enjoy it? » And then he thinks: « Now I remember. These are the leftovers from last night’s supper. » And he is immediately seized again by discontent, perhaps because he has to eat leftovers, cold and a bit soured, perhaps because the aluminum of the lunch-box gives the food a metallic taste, but the notion lodged in his head is: The thought of Domitilla manages to spoil my meals even when I’m far away from her.

At that point, he realizes he has come almost to the end, and again this dish seems to him something very special and rare, and he eats with enthusiasm and devotion the final remains on the bottom of the plate, the ones that taste most of metal. Then, gazing at the empty, greasy receptacle, he is again overcome by sadness.

Then he wraps everything up, puts it in his pocket, and stands; it’s still early to go back to work; in the big pocket of his heavy jacket the cutlery drums against the empty lunch-box. Marcovaldo goes to a wine-shop and has them pour him a glass, filled to the brim; or else to a café where he sips a little cup of coffee; then he looks at the pastries in the glass case, the boxes of candies and nougat, persuades himself that he doesn’t want any, that he doesn’t want anything at all; for a moment he watches the table-football to convince himself that he wants to kill time, not appetite. He goes back into the street. The trams are crowded again; it is almost the hour to return to work, and he heads in that direction.

It so happened that his wife, Domitilla, for personal reasons, bought a great quantity of sausage and turnips. And for three evenings in a row, Marcovaldo found sausage and turnips for supper. Now that sausage must have been made of dog meat; the smell alone was enough to kill your appetite. As for the turnips, this pale and shifty vegetable was the only one Marcovaldo had never been able to bear.

At noon, there they were again: his sausage and turnips, cold and greasy, in the lunch-box. Forgetful as he was, he always unscrewed the lid with curiosity and gluttony, never remembering what he had eaten for supper the previous night; and every day brought the same disappointment. The fourth day, he stuck his fork into it, sniffed once again, rose from the bench, and holding the open lunch-box in his hand, walked absently along the street. The passers-by saw this man carrying a fork in one hand and a plate of sausage in the other, apparently unable to bring himself to raise the first forkful to his mouth.

From a window a voice said: « Hey, mister! »

Marcovaldo raised his eyes. On the mezzanine floor of a grand villa, a boy was standing at a window, his elbows on the sill, where a dish had been set.

« Hey, mister! What are you eating? »

« Sausage and turnips! »

« Lucky you, » the boy said.

« Mmm… » Marcovaldo replied, vaguely.

« Imagine! I’m supposed to eat fried brains… » Marcovaldo looked at the dish on the sill. There were fried brains, soft and curly as a pile of clouds. His nostrils twitched.

« What? Don’t you like brains? » he asked the little boy.

« No. They locked me up in here to punish me, because I wouldn’t eat it. But I’ll throw it out of the window. »

« And you like sausage? »

« Oh, yes, it looks like a snake… We never eat it at our house… »

« Then you give me your plate and I’ll give you mine. »

« Hurrah! » The child was overjoyed. He held out to the man his porcelain plate with heavy silver fork, and the man gave him the lunch-box with the tin fork.

And so both fell to eating: the boy at the window-sill and Marcovaldo seated on a bench opposite, both licking their lips and declaring they had never tasted such good food.

But then, behind the boy, a governess appears, with her hands on her hips.

« Well, young man! My goodness! What are you eating? »

« Sausage! » the boy says.

« And who gave it to you? »

« That gentleman there, » and he pointed to Marcovaldo, who interrupted his slow and earnest chewing of a morsel of brains.

« Throw it away! The smell! Throw it away! »

« But it’s good… »

« And your plate? The fork? »

« The gentleman has them… » and he pointed again to Marcovaldo, who was holding the fork in the air with a bit of half-eaten brains stuck on it.

The woman began yelling. « Thief! Thief! The silver! » Marcovaldo stood up, looked for another moment at the half-finished dish of fried brains, went to the window, set plate and

fork on the sill, stared at the governess with contempt, and withdrew. He heard the clatter of the lunch-box on the pavement, the boy’s crying, the rude slam of the window. He bent to pick up the lunch-box and its cover. They were a bit dented; the cover no longer fit properly. He jammed everything into his pocket and went off to work.

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