Five years ago, I moved to Italy — the hyper-romanticized country of pebbled beaches and soft old-world wines.
Growing up with grandparents who had immigrated from Italy three decades prior, I had continuously been fed handmade tagliatelle, slow-roasted peppers in polenta, and stories from the salty shores and glistening waters of Sardinia. My grandmother watched me on weekends when she taught me the Italian numbers, aggressive curse words, and almost a complete language of pure gesticulation. For years I breathed in their cigarette smoke and nostalgia and dreamed of a future life in Northern Italy.
Upon first moving to Turin, I was ready for the burst of fantastical euphoria; I loved the fig trees that grew from impossibly small cracks in the sidewalks, the almost otherworldly silence of monasteries, the fact that gelato was an acceptable midday snack for adults, and the lackadaisical yet passionate Italian culture. If my blonde hair didn’t betray me as a foreigner, my butchered Italian and ever-present girlish grin did the trick.
But the charm disintegrated into the muggy September air the first day the metro broke down. Two hours of waiting past nightfall led to a thirty-euro cab in the warm autumn rain. I woke up recharged to find my monthly metro pass had stopped working, resulting in my standing for hours in the Italian DMV — which is like the American DMV with better lighting but slower service. I was publicly chastised with colorful insults I couldn’t understand for touching the pears at the open market with my bare hands. Public transportation strikes started occurring almost daily; the only printer in my entire university was out of service; laundry took a week to dry when it was raining; the power in our building was faulty, frequently leaving us without electricity for hours at a time. The pebble beaches and glistening waters never felt further away from me than in those moments.
One day in October as I left my job at a trilingual elementary school, I stood at my usual bus stop for over an hour — no buses came. I was not the only commuter waiting on the now-crowded bus stop, though none of the surrounding Italians seemed remotely perturbed. I started hearing the word sciopero muttered between parties, the word I had come to learn meant “strike.” Sciopero quickly become a staple in my vocabulary repertoire, as frequently used as gelato or allora. Waiting another moment before starting my five-mile trek home, I watched the commuters dissipate into the streets. Watching them meander away unhurried, it astounded me that my frustration wasn’t reflected in any of their faces. They simply glanced at the sky, popped up umbrellas, and walked away — cigarettes in their fingers, gossip on their lips.
I wanted to know why my Italian neighbors weren’t upset with the strikes, which frequently left me fighting my way home in the muggy September air or the relentless December hail. Why weren’t they concerned that their tap water was undrinkable due to “light” arsenic contamination? Why weren’t they ever frustrated, like the American students, that every shop in the vicinity was closed for hours in the middle of each day, rendering us helpless to continue our desperate need for productivity?
Answers to these questions came to me later after moving to a smaller and rather ancient Italian town. Just north of Rome, the Etruscan village of Viterbo was still surrounded by a protective wall from the 11th century — the original cobblestones jutting out at every angle like the mangled teeth of an ancient creature. The both beautiful and haunting deterioration of the city kept both cars and pedestrians at a slow pace, which seemed to fit the overall culture of the self-contained city. After learning every stone of my walk to work, and when every barista knew my coffee order and name, I felt myself relax into the scaffolding of a true Italian lifestyle. Soon after, my aforementioned frustrations seemed to dissipate gently, like the commuters into the streets on that day I waited for a bus that would never come. I learned to value something that Americans avoid at all costs: idle time.
This concept is an unyielding centerpiece around which the Italian culture hangs. Idle time — moments to be present with friends and family, to allow ourselves to indulge in both deep introspection and light-hearted chatter, writing down thoughts that pass through our heads throughout the day — allows us the ability to keep our demanding lives from ruling our existences. To do nothing is to have the power to quiet our surroundings and sometimes indulge in solitude — it is to allow our minds to grow inward.
I went through the typical peaks and troughs of living in a foreign country, but it was after this realization and acceptance that the peaks became more frequent and the troughs rather rare. Looking back, I’ve begun to think that I was experiencing such aggravation because I had been attempting to live in Italy without living as an Italian; I was transposing my structured Californian lifestyle onto an Italian backdrop, creating certain incongruities that couldn’t be reconciled.
This culture values the very thing that haunts Americans — time that doesn’t promote our companies, doesn’t build our resumes, doesn’t move us ahead of our competitors. Meeting neighbors while carrying liters of fresh water up 76 stairs, walking home from the bus stop in a light spring rain, making lunch at home during pausa pranzo- these are all ways Italians pay homage to the most important part of our existence. When I took a step back, arsenic water never seemed so sweet.