Italy has been on my mind. The other night, as I was trying to sleep, I thought about my relationship with my Italian host mom, Paola. Here are a few episodes about our relationship, my Italian experience, and a few lessons I learned.
I’m reading “Sogno Romano” to Paola in the kitchen while she makes lunch. She stands at the stove. Water boils. The sun streams in. Her cigarette sighs smoke on the counter.
She turns her head gently to correct my mistakes. Her nods tell me she likes the story. I read and try to speak clearly, roll my rs, say a question with the right intonation. My tongue stumbles over words and I feel my cheeks turn red. The phrases would sound much more beautiful if she was reading them.
But she isn’t. And I am. Her nods push me to say another word. She makes lunch, I read her a story. Together, we show one another we care.
It’s 11 o’clock. Paola comes in. In her hand is an espresso cup. The espresso I drink every morning because she insists. I’m confused because it is night now. But she’s insisting.
Her response: “Mirto.”
With a grin she hands me it. I take the small cup and take a small sip. Like espresso it’s strong. And it’s good. It’s alcohol.
I tell her I like it. She tells me she would give me more, but I would fall asleep. I laugh because she’s serving me alcohol in my pajamas, while I do my homework, and I laugh because she is right.
Many nights I will fall asleep with the lights on and a book in my hand because my feet have walked to places I have never been and my mind is constantly trying to comprehend conversations or formulate responses that I often solve too late.
I am already so tired. But I take a sip. It’s good. I’m experiencing and learning. I’m happy that she wants to share her Mirto with me.
A week and a half. That’s how long it took me to show Paola that I care.
It isn’t because I didn’t appreciate her good cooking, her comforting hand on my shoulder, her singing with the TV. It’s because I didn’t know how to appreciate her.
But tonight I figured it out. All it took was: “Grazie per cena.” And then I saw it, a big, kind smile. And then I heard it: “Grazie per la tua compagnia.”
It’s a routine we will create every time we eat. She prepares the meal, I set the table, then, we eat together.
After I see her face light up I make sure to tell her every time. I fly the table cloth out of the window, like a banner, and our bread crumbs fall onto the street like rain. I fold the cloth, step beside her and place it in the drawer. Before I leave I say it. My voice is gentle and genuine. I say it from the heart; “Thank you for dinner.”
Smiling big, she thanks me for sitting and eating beside her. I tip toe to my room with a joyful heart. It’s my favourite thing to hear and my favourite part of our dinner.
When I first arrived to Italia, I was continually confused by one word: Insomma. While one of its meanings is “in conclusion,” or “in short” (and how fitting for my final post about my experience in Roma this summer) another of its meanings is no meaning at all.
After hearing insomma used over and over, I finally asked my host mom, “che significa insomma?” to which she replied, more or less, it doesn’t. The word insomma, or at least in the context that she was using it, meant nothing. It was simply a filler.
But oh how I had searched my brain to find some significance for this word! What could be its purpose? It must have a purpose. Everything must have a purpose — its place can’t be just to take up space.
And how fitting, yet again, that this is where I find myself now: at the end of my journey in Italia and at the beginning of taking up space and time without a definite purpose or means. I am the end and beginning of insomma.
My viaggio in Italia this summer was meraviglioso. From the beginning, Italia felt like it was my home. And it still is. My host mom Paola taught me pazienza, and once I began to take breaths in that were deep and wide, I no longer had to come up to the surface for air; I was immersed (as much as I could be) in the Italian culture. And how beautiful is the view from within!
I learned a grocery list of things: how to hang up clothes, how to survive the metro, how to twirl spaghetti the Italian way, how to order gelato flawlessly (well one time I was given a copetta (cup) instead of a cono (cone,)) and how to have conversations about politics in Italian. I also learned the hard and important things that surpass culture like; how to speak words of hope, how to find joy when life becomes mundane, how to go on adventures alone, how to remain true to self, how to show thanks and gratitude when feeling disappointment, and how build quick friendships that are deep and meaningful.
A Roma I had an adventure every day. And so, here are some of my favorite adventures/memories that I had while in Italy:
1. Renting a bike and riding it down Via Appia. As pleasant as this sounds it is a little more complex: my ride down the ancient road was only after I had accidentally took the wrong street and road down a windy and tight street accompanied by many Italian fiats and motociclette. Oh, and a carabinieri honked at me because I was happily peddling the wrong way down a street. Nevertheless, it was full of giggles.
2. My bus breaking down halfway in route at Circo Massimo. While at first I felt like crying (I was on my way to my program’s final dinner and two miles away from my destination) I decided that instead of pitying myself about being lost, I would choose joy. I took out my camera, took a few random buses and trams, and passed all of the beautiful sights of Roma that I never stopped to admire. It was a sweet goodbye; walking down the streets of Roma alone for the last time. I walked at a slow pace and enjoyed the Roman Forum, Colosseo, and Piazza Venezia as the architects that designed them meant for them to be — with wonder.
3. Snorkeling in one of the caves between Sorrento e l’isola di Capri. I’ve chosen this memory less because of the magnificence of the cave that we snorkeled through and more because of what happened in the water. Instead of enjoying the clarity of the water and the grandeur of the grotto, our adventure was more about getting out of the water and back into the boat. In less than two minutes of being in the water, the water became swift and rocky and in the midst of chaos, Paul was stung by a jellyfish. What an experience! Afterwards it made for many laughs and jokes to be made on the boat at the expense of Paul’s pain.
4. Traveling to Bologna. I met Irene at the train station and afterwards she showed me the splendor of Bologna. She taught me that the bellezza is often times hidden behind medieval exteriors that mask the lush and fecund courtyards on the inside. Diligently she showed me the jewels of Bologna, inviting me into the her hometown: where she had went to college, the ceiling that her grandfather had painted, the mercati she would shop at as a kid. Soon, Bologna became like an old friend. It was sweet for a city that I had just met to become one that I knew so well.
5. My last night and morning in Roma. After Paola had prepared dinner, she looked at me and told me “metto la mia anima in questo” (I put my soul into this). Our dinner was happy and I told her about what I had learned in Italia and what I looked forward to having in America. But my last morning, as I sat at the dinner table eating the sweetest melone and the panino Paola had made me, tears welled in my eyes. I couldn’t express how thankful I was for all of the dinners she made me, the conversations we had about culture and being a single woman, the smile and “oi!” she would greet me with when she came home in the evening. Instead, I showed her by being vulnerable. She showered me with kisses (really, I don’t think I have ever had so many kisses on my face at one time) and we laughed. It was special.
Insomma, I grew so much in Italia. It is an experience I would do again, again, and again. (Which is saying something because I ate a lot of pasta while I was there. I am willing to triple that amount!)
But now I am at the other end of insomma. I don’t have a job or a specific purpose while I am back at home. And so the question becomes; what will I do as I fill this space in this new season of my life? How will I take the experiences I learned in Italy and apply them here, at home?
I think it is by making every day and adventure: reading, writing, cooking, and sometimes, being still. I can’t wait to see what the “in conclusion” is for the insomma that I am in right now. I imagine, despite how it sometimes feels, it has a purpose. Actually, I know it.
Dal Texas, Hannah
P.S. I thought I was completely tired of pasta until I realized I was craving it the other night. It took me less than a week to be ready to eat pasta again. Can you believe it?!
Often I forget to look at life with new eyes. Why is it so easy for the sights you have never seen before to become so ordinary, so mundane? I find myself watching the sunset going down upon the most beautiful waters I have ever seen and the feeling of ecstasy is not there like I thought it would be. There is a disconnection between before thought and now reaction.
I think of Wordsworth and Coleridge, two great romantic poets, writing over and over again of losing the feeling that we so long to have. We desire for the sky that stores our needed oxygen to take our breath away. We want to mouth words of beautiful and marvelous with a splendor that is praise and good. We wait for our dirty hands to be washed by the purest of waters, so that somehow, the dirty parts of us become clean, too. But glory and beauty does not always feel this way.
In Wordsworth’s poetry there are times of false emotion – when his feelings seem forced and his breathlessness is exaggerated to a heaving of air to remind himself that he is alive. It is this exercise that I think might be the key to reminding us, to feeling, the beautiful. It is one word of praise and exhortation that ends in another. Like the grains of sand that stick to your hand once you are bold enough to reach into the fine mess, the praises become unnumbered. Grain upon grain, praise upon praise, once again we feel.
So why don’t we practice this more often? Why do we replace praises with complaints?
In Italia, I am remembering that feeling the beautiful comes with practice in praise. Giving thanks is a discipline that transforms into joy.
Today, I am reminded that when I do not feel overwhelmed or overtaken by the bellezza around me, it is an opportunity for me to live out my purpose by thanking a God who made the sunset, the outstretched trees, the delicate flowers, the strong and sturdy mountains, the beautiful people around me.
This morning I read Psalm 16:11; “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” And what I realized was this: when I participate in enjoying the beauty around me with my mouth, and following, my soul, I am pleasing the Creator. Giving thanks leads me to the nearness of His presence, an eternal pleasure that will never cease to overwhelm me with gladness.
Now, for the last few days that I am here in Italia, I am going to search for joy by discovering the glory of the insignificant, but beautiful, things in life. It goes something like this: 1. Flowers that dance and sway in the wind; 2. The sound of the ocean that is fierce yet calming; 3. Sharing smiles of understanding with strangers on the metro; 4. Art that starts conversations about beliefs, ideas, fears; 5. My host mom’s laugh; 6. Friends that ask for hugs; 7. Toes in the sand; 8. Walking past the market and smelling the sweetness of fruit; 9. Views that make the Earth feel small; 10. The sunset over Cilento …
IN MATERA the stone buildings are a perfect canvas for the birds. Easy to spot, the sun captures the gracefulness of their bodies to form a shadow that only multiplies their existence.
Against this neutral backdrop the reds, pinks and greens of a pot of flowers are unmistakably seen. The blue sky becomes as vivid and expressive as the ocean.
In a city made of cavernous rock, there is life. Matera in every way, emphasizes this abundance. Here nothing is hidden to the naked eye; beauty is all around. It is abundant, it is accumulative.
And like so, when the rains come to Matera, it floods. There is no wondering why the slate, the backdrop of the città, is clean. It is a simple fact, when it rains in Matera it pours. The stone streets become layered with a coat of water that piles upon one another – much like the cave houses – until the steep streets form a river that carries the rain that falls nearest to the sky back down to the river that it came from.
The rush of the rain is exhilarating; emulating the people that must descend and ascend, only to descend again. The motion of rain is a reminder that life in Matera is truly difficult; it takes time to reach the peak, only to fall from the heavens back down to the valleys of Earth.
But it is this same tiring movement that brings warmth to Matera. Stones soak up the sun, and when the rain comes, as it did during my stay, the hike up the vias becomes almost impossible to perform without the arm of someone to grab onto and climb the incline together.
A life not to be lived alone, Matera teaches that in simplicity there is multiplicity: for the birds it is their shadow, for a drop of rain it is uniting into a flood, and for me, it is embracing the rains with the company of a friend.
I am reminded that as much as I love to explore life alone, there is immense beauty in experiencing it with others.
Like Matera at night, when the individual lights of the piccole case unite, there is an ethereal illumination that makes the bellezza around all the more evident.
I inhale and exhale; life is better this way.
Here are some of my favorite moments that I shared with others in Matera:
*Huddling underneath a dry arch only for the rain to tumult down the steps with the vivacity of a waterfall.
*Dancing, dancing, dancing with my friends and the Italians of Matera.
*Talking art with people of different backgrounds, ideas, stories.
*Enjoying the best breakfast pastries.
*Eating dinner outside at 9 o’clock as a live orchestra plays movie scores.
*Watching the mountains, the bellezza of Italy, and being able to call it meravigliosa.
Pazienza is a word that I am constantly hearing from la mia mamma italiana. When the lady upstairs rearranges her furniture at 3AM: pazienza. When the autobus does not show up, and so she walks the three miles home: pazienza. When the mirror that she ordered arrives broken: pazienza. Pazienza, pazienza, pazienza.
A Roma, the most important lesson I am learning is when to be patient and when to act.
Today I sporadically hopped on the 30 bus and left my friends behind. Without much thought and a melting-by-the-minute gelato in hand, I bolted for the autobus – making a fool out of myself as I squeezed between doors that hugged my shoulder blades – and waved at the friends I had been in mid-conversation with goodbye. A moment lacking hesitation or second guessing, I went.
Normally, as they say in Italian, ho ragione (I have reason,) but today I did not weigh my options. It was freeing. I made my way to the quartiere Trastevere, a sweet and short one mile walk after my stop at Largo di Torre Argentina, just over the bridge that overlooks the Tevere River. There I walked around without any plans. I wondered across some bambini playing soccer at a park; a few kiosks of flowers; many corners with secret streets that hide behind the other; and my favorite, a woman at a piccolo negozio I visited that was kind enough to correct my sbagliato Italian and ask me about my travels here in Italia.
I told her that I was here exploring Italy — the culture, the streets, the people, to which she responded with thanks. She told me that she did not understand many Americans that travel to Italy. They drink without enjoying. They invade the Italian cities without considering the people, thinking that the city is their own.
To this woman, Americans were lacking what is the essence of Italy: pazienza.
In Italy, all is done with pazienza. Dinner is slowly and precisely prepared after working for 10 (or more) hours. Wine is sipped slowly, used to enhance the flavor and the enjoyment of the food. Conversation is long. Even in the inconvenient aspects of Italy: the stores that close for a two hour lunch break, the busses that go on strike and do not show up, the dinners that start at 9 at night, there is a state-of-mind that there is time; be patient.
It is this balance that I am trying to discover while I am here in Italia. When is the time to run from conversations onto jolting busses? When is the time to get upset that plans did not work out? When is the time to sit down and rest? When is the time to get up and move? When is the time to choose patience over anger?
This reminds me of Ecclesiastes in that there is “a time for everything.” What season is now and how will I use it as I acquire patience?
Now, I believe it is a time of listening and learning. A time of waiting to speak. For the rest of my stay here in Italy I will – in the good and the bad – wander through the streets of Italia, soaking it all in.
As I spend more and more time in Roma, the more and more it feels like home.
Yesterday, instead of spending time exploring the nooks and crannies of the city with friends like I normally do, I took the bus home after school and stopped at a gelateria that I had been wanting to try. I ordered un gelato con cioccolata e ricotta con ficchi. And of course, I had panna (whip cream) on top. After inhaling my gelato, I took a twenty minute walk back to my house as a storm settled upon Roma. The raindrops kissed my cheek and I walked with a posture of confidence; Roma is home.
There is freedom in walking the streets of Roma without having plans or a direction to go. So often I feel the need to have an agenda, but in Roma my agenda, my goal, is to not have one. Here, the buses are unreliable – you can wait for 30 minutes and the bus will not show – and my plans are always changing.
The beautiful thing about change of direction, time, and place is that I am getting to take in Italy slowly.
Two days ago, I visited Villa D’Este a Tivoli and it is the most beautiful place I have visited thus far. A huge garden that overlooks the city of Roma, I discovered the beauty of Villa D’Este alone. It is the moments that I am by myself that I feel are the most special. There, being able to see far and wide, I felt my lips automatically mouthing praise. I stood breathless at the top of the garden and I gave thanks: “thank You Father, for the roses, that You have intricately composed;” “thank You for the city of Rome and that You love and care for these people;” “thank You, Lord, for il cielo that you paint with Your hands;” “thank You that Your creation is a reminder of Your love for me.” When I am alone, I get to spend time with my Maker. He always romances me.
Often, these praises come when I am walking in the rain or admiring the flowers. But they also come when I spend time with my host mom, Paola.
The first couple of days after I arrived, it was difficult for me to communicate with Paola. She told me that she did not know if I was contenta living with her and I had trouble conveying to her that I was truly happy. As the days have gone by, our relationship has become stronger and stronger. Having a close relationship with Paola is something that I have prayed about since before I met her – before I even knew her name – and each day I know Paola better and better.
My experience a Roma would not be the same without Paola. Finally, we are starting to understand each other. Paola continually shows me that she cares for me. When I have trouble speaking, she helps me finish my sentences. When she makes dinner, she always serves me first. When I glance at her, she smiles. Her countenance is kind always asks me about my day with kindness, sincerity, and a willingness to listen. Spending time with her for hours at the dinner table – where we always watch TV and she always sings to the songs playing on the TV, where she shows me the pictures of her granddaughter Camilla and of herself when she was younger, where we talk about musica and Texas two-step – are the best moments of my day. Knowing Paola is knowing a small, but important part, of il cuore dell’Italia.
So much of me wishes that I could take you to experience Paola’s pasta con le anguille or eat un gelato (o forse due) with you on a sweet summer day. Yet these are moments I am getting to take in and enjoy alone. After all, Roma is home.
1. A Typical Colazione: Biscotti, Un Caffè, Ciliegie, e Un Latte
2. Empty Via
3. Gelati per Due
4. Il Panteon
5. Gelati: Limone e Pesca
6. The Young Man and the Sea
7. Looking Up
8. At a Bus Stop: Il Colosseo
9. Al Mare, Ostia Centro