As we prepare to end our Italian adventure and return to Atlanta, we can’t help but reflect on our time here and what it has meant to us. I went back and read through all my blog posts from the beginning. It made me think about all things we’ve done, things we’ve felt and experienced, and how we’ve gradually become acclimated to this place. So I decided to compile a top ten list of things we love about Italy. Here it is:
10. Festas. We went to our first festa the first week we were here and we’ve been going ever since. Festas, sagras (blessings), Saint’s Days – they’re all worth going to. Italians really know how to celebrate. They take something ordinary, like bread, and turn it into a grand event. The priest comes out and waves the incense around, everyone prays, there’s usually a processional, there’s always food and wine, there are rides and things for the kids, and there’s always live music. The food is cooked on the spot on big open fires and everyone in town is involved – from arranging, to cooking, to taking up money, to serving, to cleaning up. And they’re all having fun. Lots of laughter and smiles. A wonderful way to spend the afternoon or the evening.
9. Trains. What a wonderful way to travel. Most of the train stations are located very close to the center of town, making it so easy to visit almost anywhere without a car. And they’re very affordable. The trains are comfortable (airlines should study the train seats for some pointers), clean, have bathrooms (of varying quality, but all serviceable), and most have either dining cars or a man who comes through with a cart of snacks. They’re all wired so that you can plug in your phone or computer and if you join the club, you get free wi-fi. Just be mindful of the rules, though. You can ride the trains for hundreds of miles and never once have your ticket checked. Or you can get fined on a 20 mile trip because you forget to punch your ticket before you got on the train. We figured that since they don’t always come through checking tickets, when they do they really lay down the law to make you unwilling to take the chance that you might not get caught. We went all the way to Switzerland and back (several train changes) and only had our tickets checked one time. Also, be aware of the “air conditioning” on the trains in summer. It’s really not.
8. Siestas. This is love/hate relationship for us. We love the lifestyle that this promotes. Work for a while, take a nice long break, come back and work for a while. Go home in the middle of the day and spend time with your family, run errands, go get you hair cut, take a nap, whatever you want or need to do. But from a consumer point of view, it really stinks. We never quite got used to this. We’d always go somewhere, have lunch and then think we could walk around. You can walk around just fine, but all the shops are closed. This reminds me of one the first things I learned on my very first trip to Italy – if you see something you think there’s a pretty good chance you want to buy, buy it when you see it. The store may never be open again while you’re in that town and the chances are slim that you’ll find the same thing in another town. This is a hard concept for me because I’m a browser. I like to look at all my options before making a purchase. You can’t do that here. See it and buy it is the rule.
7. Dog friendliness. Millie may miss this more than me, but what a wonderful concept. It seems so very odd to think it’s OK to bring a dog into a restaurant, a shop, even a museum.
But in the six months we’ve been here, we’ve never been turned away from a restaurant because of Millie. We always ask if it’s OK, and have always been told “certo” – certainly. They usually bring her a dish of water and some even bring her snacks. I think about Atlanta where you can’t even bring a dog onto an outdoor patio and wonder why this is so. Is it health related? Is there a fear that dogs will fight with each other? It may be a combination of many things, but I can tell you that it is not a problem here. At all. We’ve been in restaurants where there are several dogs and I’ve never witnessed an altercation or anything of the kind. They just sit next to their owners and hope like heck something falls on the floor. Dogs are everywhere (cats, too, for all the cat people out there – but we all know cats have their own rules) and they all go investigate each other and if they don’t get along, Italians just laugh and pull them away. They don’t get all upset and angry if the dogs growl or bark at each other. When two dogs start showing interest in each other, Italians always ask, “feminna o maschio”? Female or male. They only let females and males make acquaintances – dogs of the same gender are politely steered away. This reminds me of one time when we were walking Millie back in Atlanta. A family approached us – a father, mother, child in stroller, and a dog on a leash. Millie started to go up to the dog and the father said something like, if your growls I will kick it – I just want you to know. He would never make it here. In fact, he might be kicked.
6. Dinner at eight. This is not just for special occasions, it’s everyday. I love not rushing into dinner. If you go to a
restaurant before eight, they may not even be open. I’m reminded again of our very first trip to Italy. We went to dinner one night at 7:30. We walked into the restaurant and the door was open, but all the lights were out and there was not a soul in there. Finally someone came out of the back and turned the lights on and seated us. We thought, wow, this must be a bad restaurant – there’s no one here! By the time we had ordered and some food started coming to our table, people started filing in. They just don’t eat dinner until at least eight. Weeknights and weekends – it doesn’t matter. Now this is a problem if you go to bed at ten. But they don’t do that either. Everything is a little later here – lunch at one, dinner at eight, to bed around midnight, businesses open around nine or ten.
5. Piazzas. Piazzas are great. They’re where the action is, where the sculpture is, where the fountains and monuments are, and where the old men gather. Piazzas are public spaces, kind of like the old town squares we used to have in the U. S. Except every town usually has more than one piazza. In Anghiari, there are several, although Piazza Baldaccio is where everything happens. Piazza Baldaccio has two variety stores, one art gallery, an antique store, a butcher, a florist, a tobacco shop, a pharmacy, an internet point/copy place (think Kinko’s on a very small scale), two barbers, two clothing stores, a pharmacy, a bank and three restaurants. It’s happening. There’s a statue of Garibaldi, the father of Italian unification. Every town in Italy has one of these. I’ll bet there are more statues of Garibaldi in Italy than there are of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined in the U.S. On every Garibaldi statue, there’s the phrase “O Roma, o morte”. Something like “To Rome, or death”, meaning he was mortally committed to see a unified Italy with its capital in Rome. He’s striking a confident, commanding pose with his right hand extended and pointing confidently toward Rome. The legend (you knew there had to be one) is that Anghiari got a really good deal on this statue from another city who got a new one. So they installed it in the best possible location, right at the entrance to the piazza. The only problem is instead of pointing south toward Rome, he’s pointing north toward Bologna. Hey, it was a bargain and if he’d been oriented toward Rome, his backside would be welcoming everyone into the piazza. Piazzas are great, open, public spaces. People are eating, drinking, strolling, laughing and just generally enjoying life. Piazzas are the lifeblood of Italian towns and even the smallest little spot in the road town has at least one. Places to gather are important here – where else would you have festas?
4. The Italian language. I love hearing foreign languages. Maybe it’s because I’m from the U.S. where you rarely hear anything but English. I love accents and rolling r’s and gutteral h’s. It reminds me that there’s a great big world out there and we are just a part of it. Maybe it’s because I love Italy so much, but I think that Italian is one of the most beautiful languages. Listening to Italian is like listening to music. It’s a lyrical, rhythmic language that has cadences and crescendos. It’s also a very hard language to learn. We’re taking lessons and have made progress, but we are still just beginners. Just to give you some perspective, there are about 171,500 commonly used words in the English language. In Italian, there are about 270,000. Lots of words, lot of rules, lots of exceptions to the rules. But that’s not what I’ll miss. I’ll miss hearing all the merchants on our street singing out “Ma-REEEE-a” every morning to our older neighbor across the street, just to make sure she’s OK. I’ll miss hearing “tranquillo”, with the hands splayed out and pushing down, indicating take a deep breath and let it go. I’ll miss passing by the groups of old men in the piazza and hearing their either very hushed or very passionate conversation. I’ll miss hearing our neighbor, Jonpietro, greet us with “Va bene?”, meaning, “Is it going good?”. I’ll miss hearing “prego” which means so many things. You’re welcome, don’t sit on the floor in St. Peter’s, here’s your dinner. I’ll miss not understanding everything I hear, but loving the sound of it.
3. Food. It had to be in the top five, right? The simplicity of the food here is a thing of beauty. It’s so simple, it seems
complicated. How can you tease so much taste out of a tomato, olive oil, garlic, and bread? It looks almost bland, but you bite it and it reveals something so complex and dynamic – sweet, salty, acidic, savory – it’s all there in this one bite. And you wipe the oil and juice off your chin and have another bite. The produce here is like nothing we have in the U.S. I know there are many reasons for this, but it’s a sin and shame that it has to be that way. One of my best friends has said for years that she can’t remember when she’s had a really good tomato. Well, my friend, I’ve had them and they’ve evidently all moved to Italy. Tomatoes are just one example. Why is everything so good here? It’s local, for the most part, most of it is organic, and it’s seasonal. Printed menus will have tagliatelle with fresh porcini mushrooms, but the waiter will say, no, the porcinis are out of season. It’s easier to tell foreigners like us that they’re out of season than it is to print another menu. And it’s all so affordable. You can get organic, seasonal produce in Atlanta, but you pay for it. Here it’s cheap. As it should be. And restaurants. I’ve talked about this before, but restaurants are ridiculously inexpensive. And most are fabulous. As it should be.
2. Wine. In the six months we’ve been here, we haven’t skimmed the surface of wine. We’ve given it a yeoman’s effort and we’ve probably done better than most, but there’s so much we haven’t tried. Wine and food in this country are very similar. Drink local, they say. If you’re having Tuscan food, drink Tuscan wine, etc. Some areas of Italy have better grapes than others, but every region has wine. And like the food, the wine is so affordable. Wine is central to life here. Children have little splashes of wine in their water. We’ve had a great time pairing wine with food at every meal, including lunch. Our wine experience is definitely something we’ll bring back to Atlanta with us. Although it’s almost impossible to get the unique and local wines we enjoy here in Atlanta – and if you do find them, they’re about five times more expensive than here. Oh well, I guess we better drink up over the next few days.
1-3/4. Beauty. This is a broad category, but this is a beautiful country. Everyone knows Italy’s shape – the boot. This peninsula that juts out into the ocean is a thin strip of mountainous, oceanic, volcanic land. Rich, fertile and scenic. We love walking around Anghiari and seeing the views of the mountains and valleys, but when we drive around, it’s the same. Even the views on the highways are gorgeous.
Hill towns crown the mountains, old stone farmhouses adorn the valleys, monasteries, convents, and churches with their towering crosses and bell towers are scattered around enough to make you remember that at its heart, Italy is a Catholic nation. The scenery is breathtaking – the sunsets are a religious experience. The colors in the sky changing like a kaleidoscope until the sun finally melts below a mountain. There are oceans, hills, mountains, plains, big cities, small towns – it’s a 116,00 square mile piece of natural beauty that nourishes your body through its incredible bounty, and your soul through peaceful contemplation.
1-1/2. Italians. The people here make everything listed above even better. Although there’s no real sense of national pride here, there’s a strong connection to the land and the traditions.
Everyone describes themselves as Italian, but that means different things in different areas. Tuscans think of themselves as Italian, but think of Piemontese as something different – still Italian, but not like them. This is true in every region. The pride and the identification is on the regional level, not the national level. I think in the U.S. we also have the regional differences, but we pretty much all have a national pride that is common. Tradition is important, and a lot of the tradition is rooted in religion. We’ve had many conversations with people about this – the seemingly thin line between the secular and sacred. Italians generally don’t see themselves as a religious society. They’re surprised when we comment on how intertwined religion is into their everyday lives. We’ve decided that maybe it’s not religion, per se, but tradition that keeps these rituals in place. The priest blessing the new city hall, the whole town following the priest around town at Christmas to view the living nativity, the church bells that herald not only the time of day, but the calling of the faithful to church. These traditions, the legends, run deep here and are important parts of their lives. Even the people who don’t embrace religion are bound by these traditions. This seeming juxtaposition of competing values is a common thread in Italian culture. You can see people arguing ferociously over something, then moments later they are laughing over something else. Italians don’t keep many emotions inside. If they disagree, they do it with as much enthusiasm as when they agree. And the disagreements usually don’t ruin relationships. Italy is a place where people are not afraid to show emotion – men openly embrace each other and kiss each check, women stroll together arm in arm, greetings are personal whether you haven’t seen each for ten minutes or ten years. It’s how they manage to keep being tranquillo, that wonderful word that has become a personal quest for me. We tend to think being tranquillo means being even keeled all the time and not letting your emotions show. What it really means is not letting your emotions rule you. Get mad, get angry, get sad, get frustrated, but then get over it.
1. La dolce vita. This phrase conjures up images of beautiful Italians riding Vespas along the Amalfi coast with carefree expressions and beautiful blue skies and bright sunshine. The sweet life. Doing what you enjoy. Living in the moment. It’s great for a vacation, but is this really the way Italians live everyday? In many ways, yes. Most Italians are not driven by money. Maybe this is because of their history as an economically poor country rich in natural resources. A history that has seen many wars and conquests – some devastating. Lots of change over the thousands of years this has been a society. I think they innately feel like living an enjoyable life is about the only thing they can control. Stores and restaurants close whenever they feel like it. It’s OK. No one gets upset because the cheese shop closed for a rest for a few days. They close early sometimes when things are slow. They do what makes sense to them. They do what they need to keep that balance between making a living and living their life. Americans tend to go the other way, making their livelihood the central part of their lives. Italians see their livelihood as important and they’re proud of what they do, but ultimately it’s a means to an end. And the end is the most important thing. La dolce vita – living the good life with the people they love.