I traveled through Italy in 1996 with my family and saw Cinque Terre before it was a “must see.” I experienced the energy in Siena just days before the Palio. I marveled at the massive interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. I lounged lake-side in Como and Bracciano. It wasn’t enough.
In the fall of 2003 I spent 90 days backpacking through Europe. It was the typical shoestring adventure, staying in hostels and eating salami & cheese sandwiches. Of my 16-week tour, 5 weeks were in Italy. I hiked from town-to-town in Tuscany. I watched a volcano erupt at night in Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily. I read “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” a fictional biography of Michelangelo’s life, after being awestruck by the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t enough.
In the fall of 2006 I went to Rome armed with knowledge of Italian and determined to have a richer, deeper experience. I lived and studied in Rome for a semester. I walked to and from school nearly every day, passing St. Peter’s, the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo and Piazza Navona. I had lectures in the Roman Forum and debated Science vs. Religion in a course taught by a Catholic Priest. I was a member of a local Jazz Club and a regular at a bar in the historic center. I attended A.S. Roma matches at Stadio Olympico and cheered with the Tifosi in Curva Sud. It wasn’t enough.
Regardless of whether or not I throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain to ensure my return, I always seem to find my way back to Italy. I have always had a notion of what I wanted to get out of my time here, and it was never quite right.
Mi mancava qualcosa – I was missing something – but I didn’t know what. I doubt that my thirst for Italy will ever be quenched, and I will likely continue to find my way back here. However, I can now say with 100% certainty that I finally found what it was I was looking for: my Italian family.
What makes this culture so rich is the undying devotion to your loved ones. Relationships with family and friends are absolutely sacred in this culture, nothing else takes priority…ever. It is in the name of these relationships that Italians enjoy long meals, create piazzas, and have siestas. Knowing this, I was desperate to integrate into this part of the culture, to feel this unconditional and unwavering love, to become part of an Italian family.
Last night was my final night with the Gelli family and little did I know that there would be a festa in my honor. Tonja invited her brothers and sisters, and their kids over for a “send off.” They wrote “La Canzone di Katie Wax” and sang it to me while one of the cousins played the guitar. Each of the girls wrote me a card with a picture and said “ti voglio bene” – I love you. Simone hand-crafted a bracelet for me out of bronze in his workshop, a gift so I can take the love of this family with me as I travel. Tonja and her sister Federica cried as I stumbled through a “Discorso” in Italian, thanking everyone for such an incredible experience. I finally felt it last night…this Italian love. It is rich, pure, and one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received.
Thank you to the Gelli Family, the Pierallini Family, and all the other friends & families who welcomed me into their homes and hearts this summer. This experience was more than I could have ever imagined, and I lack the words to express my gratitude. My home, wherever or whatever it may be, will always be open to you.
Grazie alla famiglia Gelli, ed alla Famiglia Pierallini, e tutti gli altri amici e famiglie che mi hanno invitato nelle loro case e nel loro cuore quest’estate. Questa esperienza è stata più di quanto potevo immaginare, e mi mancano le parole per esprimere la mia gratitudine. La mia casa sarà sempre aperta per voi.
Before I left the States back in March, Tonja emailed me a recent photo of the kids. My mother took a look at the photo, pointed to Vera, and without hesitation said “You’re gonna have your hands full with that one.” I don’t know what it was that my mom saw, but she was right.
Vera is 9 years old and she is the best Italian instructor I have ever had, correcting not only my grammar but also my pronunciation regularly. She does a great job explaining to vocabulary to me, defining the new words out of old words I know. Vera is also the epitome of La Piu Grande – the oldest child. She seeks to be right, to please, and offers unsolicited advice on how to properly do just about anything. She is eager to help with any task, but doesn’t quite know how and more often than not, she just ends up contributing to more chaos. She is sly and clever as she effortlessly shifts the blame onto her younger sister for any wrongdoing.
When you are juggling 4 children under the age of 10, it is hard to remember that the oldest child is still a child. Vera is expected to be responsible, reliable, to know what is and isn’t okay, to keep an eye on her siblings at all times…it is a tough job, and I can relate. When you are always in charge of taking care of others, you forget to take care of yourself. Luckily, Vera discovered the importance of Alone Time at a much younger age than I did. I often see her wander off into her own world, a world where she can speak to animals, a world of song and dance. She has a creative spirit and an incredible sense of humor; I know that in the Gelli household, this will be encouraged to continue.
I have tried to show Vera that being the oldest is not a burden, in the end it is a blessing. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I hope she listened.
Without a doubt, being the middle child is difficult. Just try to imagine being the middle child in a loud, boisterous, large Italian family. Anna is seven years old and every day is a battle to be recognized and stand out among the crowd. Anna is not quite old enough to be a big help, like her older sister Vera. But she is also not young enough to be carried when her legs get tired, as we do with Lea and Folco. She is expected to behave, to clean up after herself, to set a good example, to know what to pack for a day at the pool, but she doesn’t yet have the ability to do this without guidance and supervision.
However, Anna has developed some incredible skills to avoid being lost in the shuffle. She is an acute observer and will immediately let you know if you have given her an unequal portion of nutella or a smaller piece of pizza than her sisters. She is also a chameleon, adapting her personality & creativity to fit the interests of whomever she is with. I have seen her flawlessly play the role of teacher, doctor, mother, and veterinarian when she is with her younger sister. But in the company of her older sister who has no interest in playing “pretend,” Anna is quick to jump on the Che Si Fa? – what are we going to do – bandwagon and seeks to be entertained.
I see a difficult adolescence for Anna as she will inevitably have trouble trying to figure out who she truly is and who she wants to be. But I hope at some point she realizes that she has an incredible maternal instinct. Yes, I understand that this is odd to note about a 7-year old, but it is true. More than her sisters, Anna seeks to be a second mother to Folco. She carries him around, feeds him, tries to explain the “rules” to him, and tries to help him learn and discover his world. Anna is an absolute sweet-heart and a nurturer. She will tend to any scratch, rolled ankle, or stubbed toe with an amazing bedside manner, seeing to it that you are comfortable and have everything you need. It is for this reason that I call her l’Infermiera – the nurse. Anna would make an incredible nurse one day, but for now I hope she just continues to play pretend.
Written on July 1st, 2011:
Yesterday Tonja and Simone went into town with two of the kids for a concert, leaving me with Anna (7) and Lea (5) for the night. All in all, apart from a clogged bidet, the evening went smoothly. We watched a Tinkerbell movie dubbed in Italian (Tinkerbell is “Trilli”, in case you wanted to know), and we practiced English verbs in the piazza after dinner. “Anna – Run! Lea – Hop! Anna – Stop. Anna – Skip. Lea – Stop. Lea – Walk!” A bi-lingual version of “Simon Says.”
The bidet incident happened while I was cooking dinner. The girls were playing House upstairs. Lea’s current cast over her broken shin had inspired the girls to pretend that their “Baby” had broken limbs. To help the wounds heal, they had carefully fashioned a body cast (mummification with toilet paper). I applaud their creativity.
Regardless of mummification, a baby still requires periodic bathing…with copious amounts of shampoo…and apparently the bidet is the best option. O mio dio, what a mess. It will likely take at least a week for the plumbing system to recover.
But clogging aside, last night marked a first for me – flying solo during the bedtime routine. I am a pro at this; it is simply an art of distraction. Turn teeth brushing into a song or come up with a peek-a-boo game while you put on their pajamas and they forget that they are getting ready for bed. But to do this in Italian?!?!? They didn’t teach me that kind of vocabulary in my classes. My creative approach to getting them to bed was to say that they could lay down their parents’ bed and wait for Simone & Tonja to come home. Sneaky because I knew full well that they’d fall asleep before the expected arrival at 1am.
However, there was a downside – the girls were committed to staying awake when normally they crawl into bed and close their eyes. They proceeded to ask me to tell a bedtime story, in Italian. Again, my college classes failed me. But the next 15 minutes were absolutely magical. Anna and Lea were calm and quiet as they helped me stumble through the story, correcting verb conjugations and filling in missed articles. They were attentive and curious, but at the same time I could tell that they were slowly winding down from the day’s activities. I arrived at the end of the story, and without a further word, both girls closed their eyes and fell asleep. Beautiful.
The story I told was one that I remember my mother telling me and my sister when we were young. I want to take a second to compliment my mother on her story-telling skills. Twenty years later and I still recall the details and the lesson of the story: presents must be opened with care, and you must take a moment to appreciate the gift and thank whomever gave it to you. Beautiful job mamma mia. Thank you for the inspiration for my first Storia Per Fare La Nana (Italian bedtime story).
Italians dine late, usually starting around 9pm and even later during the summer. Many guidebooks recommend going to a restaurant around 7:00pm to ensure you have a table; what they don’t tell you is that it is because the restaurant is a ghost town at this hour. So how is it that Italians can last so long between lunch and dinner? Aperitivo.
It is my favorite time of day, the Italian equivalent of Happy Hour. It lasts for several hours between work and dinner in at most bars in every Italian town. The process is simple: walk in, order a drink, grab a plate and help yourself to whatever is at the bar. Salami, fresh bread, a variety of spreads, chips, nuts, cheeses, olives, etc. Sit at a table on the piazza, chat with a friend, and enjoy. Feel free to grab seconds. All for the price of a cocktail, which can be as cheap as 2.00€. For a backpacker, this is as cheap as dinner gets.
My favorite aperitivo (photo above) thus far was in Portovenere, a small coastal town 30km south of the more famous Cinque Terre. Stunning scenery, gorgeous sunset, a calm sea, and a great aperitivo overlooking it all – another little Italian slice of heaven.
My love affair with Italy has been an on-again-off-again “thing” for 15 years. There is so much about this country that I adore: the language, the culture, the food (duh), the architecture, the history, and the people. I can’t get enough, and I keep coming back for more. It was only a matter of time before I fell for an Italiano.
However, I never imagined it would be a 2 year old Italian boy that would make my heart melt. I kid you not, last night we walked along the beach at sunset, holding hands and laughing as we tried to run from the waves.
All joking aside, Folco is just about the cutest child I have ever seen. This summer I have watched him grow just about every day, and he is developing an adorable personality. He is starting to understand the concept of pain, and that something he does can hurt someone else. Whenever he hears the Italian equivalent of “ouch!”, he rushes to the site of the incident and offers un bacino (a little kiss) to make it better. It is so stinking cute that I have to refrain from faking injury. Tonja captured the moment on film last night and I had to share.
Credit for my second Tuscan makeover goes to “Ridere per Vivere” (Laugh to Live), an organization of performers who dress up as clowns to perform for sick children in hospitals all throughout Italy. Their site is in Italian, but if you are curious: http://www.riderepervivere.it/
After nearly 2 months in Castelvecchio di Compito, I have grown accustomed to certain family rituals and routines. Folco naps around 2:30pm; and if he misses his nap, you will pay dearly for it around dinnertime. Vera & Anna have summer workbooks and every morning they will attempt one their many stall tactics. Simone smokes his pipe immediately after every meal and assumes the same contemplative position leaning out the window. Tonja is perpetually 30 minutes late, no matter how important the event.
There are also routines in how the village functions. Trash is taken to the curb on Thursdays, compost on Mondays, Glass/Plastics on Tuesdays and paper on Wednesdays. Maria (neighbor) takes her evening passegiata around 8:30pm. And the grumpy old Italian man across the street, I still have never gotten his name, is up at 6:00am watering the street…yes, the street…I have no idea why.
But perhaps the most reliable and punctual event is the arrival of La Postina – the mail woman – at 12:30pm sharp, 6 days a week. What is unusual about our Postina is that she is barely recognizable as an employee of the Poste. Rather than an official van or car, she drives a motorino (scooter). She wears a skimpy tank top, and her skin is approaching Oompa Loompa status under this Tuscan sun. Actually, the only thing that separates her from any other Italian woman riding a scooter is the fact that her helmet has a small yellow stripe with the words “Poste Italiano” written on it.
The other half of this regular event occurs at 12:29pm, when Toast lifts his head and perks up his ears, hearing the sound of the motorino’s engine around the bend. He races down the stairs, oblivious to any obstacle or small child in his way, and takes off down the street. What happens next is not so unlike the American phenomenon of dog vs. mailman: a mess of cursing, barking, and screeching breaks. La Postina parks her motorino in the middle of the piazza and, leaving the engine running, proceeds to deliver mail to the surrounding 15 residences. Meanwhile, Toast continues to bark with all his might, but never once gets within biting distance of La Postina.
The two proceed to have their ridiculous territorial dance for the entire 10 minutes that she is in town. And then she hops on her moto and disappears down the hill. Toast returns upstairs to his bed, proud of his accomplishment in “scaring” off an unwelcome guest.
Another universal phenomenon: it appears that all dogs chase all mail men.