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Ode to Italy

On the fifteenth of this month I celebrated 10 years of living in Italy. Time has flown, time has crawled, time has changed me. In the decade and a half I have known her, Italy has given me many gifts and has been vital in forming the person I have become. How can I ever thank her?

Italy made me beautiful

I went through quite a long ugly duckling “but she’s got a great personality” stage. Essentially from birth to sixteen, come to think of it. Right around that age I tentatively started clawing my way out, but the problem with change is that no one seems to notice but the person doing all the evolving. (Just for the record, my parents claim that I was always an attractive child. However, as the Italians say, “Every cockroach is beautiful to his own mother.” I have photos of myself as an adolescent.)

Then, magically, I spent the summer in Italy. I was with a new family, new friends, in a new town. In a country which makes no bones about being beautiful and appreciating the beautiful. I remember walking down the street in Assisi and asking my “host-sister” why so many boys were looking at me. She stopped, turned to me with a quizzical look, and said, “Beh, perchè sei una bella ragazza.” (Well, because you’re a pretty girl.)

In the intervening years, I have come to realize that Italians bandy about the word “bella” with something akin to abandon. I have heard Alessandra Mussolini described as “una bella signora”, the poor thing. Imagine Benito with a tacky blond wig, loud lipstick, and in drag, and you’ve got his granddaughter. But the important thing is that at that moment in my life, I needed to hear that I was bella. I needed to feel bella. I needed to be treated bella. And I was. And I took that beauty back home with me, and people noticed. I felt good about myself, and confident, and it gave me the self-assurance to be able to do lots of fun, challenging things over the subsequent years that I may have never otherwise attempted.

Sure, I should be above all that. I shouldn’t care about the superficial male-dominated cultural dictates for beauty. I mean, I’ve read bell hooks and I’ve Taken Back the Night and all. It shouldn’t matter. But it did to me then, and, in a much smaller but still fundamental way, it does to me now. I have come to terms with the truth that I am a person who needs to feel bella, and in Italy I do. Still today people here call me, with more than a tad of generous spirit, “una bella signora”, and it takes me back to being sixteen and feeling like I held the world in the palm of my hand. What a great feeling.

Italy made me brave

It was my last year of college, and everyone else seemed to have a handle on what they wanted to do with their lives. Some were headed to grad school for more of the same. Some had landed great jobs. Some were Teaching for America. And then there was me, staring embarrassedly into my drink at parties mumbling something about not having quite decided yet when classmates asked me what my plans for the following year-slash-rest of my life were. Then my on-again-off-again long-distance Italian beau suggested that I move over to Italy for a little while, so we could see where things were headed with us. And that seemed like a good idea. Less work than grad school. Less scary than job interviews. I had a plan.

A plan that quickly made the circuit of my friends and acquaintances, because anything that wasn’t “I thought I’d do a dissertation on the Uzbekistan Kurds and the Fourth World at Yale” or “ I just got a call back from Arthur Anderson and their paying over 40 G the first year plus relocation” was refreshing to hear, I think. And everyone was telling me how brave I was. What a big step I was taking. How they’d never have had the courage to pick up and move overseas. How much they admired my spunk. And suddenly I went from clueless chickensh*t to being brave, taking a big step. Being spunky, for God’s sake.

I started to see the whole move differently, and when I got to Italy it was more of the same. The Italians I met were amazed that I would move so far from home so young. They kept calling me brave, too. (Though not spunky. Maybe it doesn’t translate.) And over time, I came to feel that I had made a bold move, perhaps not initially inspired by bravery, but certainly carried out with it.

Bravery (even projected) begets bravery, I’ve found. Every time I am confronted with a challenging decision here in Italy, I gird my loins with recollections of my Brave Overseas Move. “Hey, if I had the courage to move here, I must have the courage to enroll in law school.” Then, “If I can do law school in Italy, I can certainly run a business here.” “If I can run a business, I think I can darn well write some essays for SlowTrav.” You get the gist. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and my (ad)ventures here have gained me more than I ever imagined.

Italy made me patriotic

I’m not talking that love it or leave it type of flag waving. I mean a real appreciation for those aspects of American culture which do, indeed, make it a great country, and a critical awareness of some substantial problems that real patriots should care enough to fix. Italy has shaped me, it’s true. But the reality is that my formative years were spent in the States, and the very fiber of my being reflects some of the things I love about the U.S. Optimism. A belief in meritocracy. A sense of civic duty. A respect for and curiosity about other cultures. A visceral love of sweet corn.

I once asked my husband if he had to describe me, what word he would choose. Without missing a beat he said, “Intraprendente.” (Loosely translated as enterprising, someone who takes initiative, a go-getter). This gave me a bit of pause, because the Cosmo “What Your Man Really Thinks of You” quiz I was doing gave me the choices of A) sex kitten; B) drop dead gorgeous; C) mile long legs; D) all of the above. I ticked D, cause I figured as a go-getter, with some effort on my part (and quite a bit of invasive surgery), I could undertake to become all of those things.

Back to the point, I realize it was growing up in a culture of being rewarded for hard work and believing that you really can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps that made me someone who is willing to stick my neck out and give it my best shot, and, within limits, that’s a good thing. Hey, this is the country where you can leave college halfway through, set up a software firm, and become the richest human on the planet. And then get into trouble with the anti-trust folks, but you know what they say about the rich and camels. And heaven. And needles. How does that saying go?

Anyway, once I no longer lived in the States it was easier for me to appreciate the unique culture there and be grateful for what it taught me. It took sleeping with my mistress to make me appreciate my wife, or, perhaps better, getting to know my mother-in-law to make me appreciate my mother.

Italy made me appreciate family

Before we start all that romanticizing about Italians and families, let me just say that there are some fundamental problems with all this togetherness. Forty year old men who still take their cappuccino in bed from their seventy year old mothers, new brides who have never done a load of laundry, siblings who don’t speak for decades because of rancor in dividing their parents’ property… when their parents aren’t even dead yet.

However, despite what can sometimes be an overwhelming and unhealthy micro culture, family is one of the fundamental pillars of Italian culture, especially in traditional rural areas like Umbria. There is a symbiotic relationship between the generations, and generally the young help the aging, the aging look after the grandchildren, everyone talks on the phone at least once a day if they live more than three blocks away, and there is less isolation and stress and sadness on the part of everyone.

In the States so often the generations live in different cities, if not states, and a once a week phone call is considered keeping in close touch. One of the things we value is an independence from our families, and, while that can certainly be a positive thing, I see a lot of children who see their grandparents twice a year, hardly know their aunts and uncles, and could walk right past a cousin on the street without recognizing them. I see a lot of parents who try to juggle jobs, kids, and home and don’t have a soul in the same town to lend them a hand. I see a lot of old folks parked in a home and forgotten. I see a lot of graves never visited.

For as much as they push me to the edge of reason at times, I feel lucky that we live next door to my in-laws and that my son sees them everyday. I am happy that he is growing up surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, relatives of various degrees and removals. I like that when we go to the cemetery he kisses the pictures of my husband’s grandfathers and says, “Nonno.” I know that whatever happens to us in the future, we would never fall through the cracks and find ourselves homeless and destitute and alone in the world. We have hundreds of wedding guests to fall back on, for one thing.

On the flip side, the distance has made me appreciate my own family and be less flippant about my relationship with them. Seeing all these close-knit families around me in Umbria makes it seem more important that I nurture the ties to my own relatives, though so far away, and that I learn as much as I can about my family’s history now while I have Grandma alive and kickin’. Mine will never be an Italian style family (my brother and I can only go about twenty minutes before reverting to arm wrestling and calling each other butthead as if we were both in middle school again…seeing each other a couple of times a year is probably our limit) but it’s still mine, and when it comes down to it, they’re all I’ve got.

Italy made me patient

It was either that or drop dead of an aneurysm from the stress.

Italy made me joyous

I’ve had a relatively happy life, given a scale that includes child slave laborers in India and all that. I’ve had my good times, and my bad. Who hasn’t? Anyone who says they want to relive their childhood has apparently blacked out the middle school years. All told, I always considered myself a generally happy person.

But it was in Italy that I found real joy. It was in Italy that I met my husband, the flame to my moth, the Yin to my Yang (or is that Yang to Yin?), the pasta to my ragù. It was in Italy that I had my son, the air that I breathe, the light that I see, the reason that I live. It is in Italy that I sometimes stand very still, hold my breath, close my eyes, and command myself, “Remember this moment forever. Remember this moment forever.”

And that, my friends, is the greatest gift.

So, let us raise our glasses and toast: To beauty and courage, country and family, patience and joy. To these ten years, and the next. To life. To Italy. Cin-cin.

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