Oratorio e Orecchiette: Volunteering in a Small Italian Town
When I arrived at Malpensa Airport back in June I felt as if I were in another world. The signs in the terminal were in Italian and the casual chatter of people around me was unfamiliar to my ear. Excited, I got my passport stamped for the first time. I went on to baggage claim and waited while the woman next to me asked what language I spoke. I had been in Italy for half an hour and already I could feel that this journey was going to be a cultural awakening unlike that which I had ever experienced.
Arriving in Italy, like any tourist or sightseer would, was only the tip of the iceberg. I was lucky enough to be able to spend three weeks living and working with an Italian community in Cesano Maderno; a town of about 37,000 inhabitants in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. Although it’s only twenty minutes by train from the heart of Milan, Cesano is a peaceful place, seemingly far removed from the hustle and bustle of one of the largest cities in Italy. The city of Cesano, although technically united, is composed of multiple districts echoing historical divisions. My host sister Martina informed me before I had even stepped foot in the town that the sector I would be staying in is called Binzago, and that its residents would appreciate it if I would call it that.
Binzago, and the rest of Cesano, is a place with strong ties to its history. As soon as I had set down my bags, Martina took me on a bike tour of the town. We went through small streets paved with cobblestone and rode past old men sitting in the town square, reading the newspaper, and speaking in dialect. Martina took me to the old city gate, which, now that the town has been expanded, serves as a monument rather than a marker to the entrance of the city. Its face was decorated with frescoes and she informed me that Napoleon had once ridden through here. We walked our bikes back across the piazza to the Palazzo Borromeo, a palace from the mid-1600s that was home to the noble Borromeo family but which now serves as a museum and boasts a beautiful public garden. As Martina and I rode home she would lazily stick out her arm and point at a tower here, a church there, and explain that it was old and important. These monuments, in many cases, were older than the United States, but they seemed to be so prevalent that Martina, a seventeen-year-old girl who had lived next to them all her life, considered them to be ordinary.
The real reason I was in Binzago was not the monuments. I was in Binzago as part of a volunteer program. I, along with eighteen other American college students, would be working at the community’s oratorio for the next three weeks. An oratorio is essentially a summer camp run by the Catholic Church, which is a very important part of the Italian community. My primary job as an honorary animatore was to make friends with the kids and to encourage them to speak English. At the same time they would be helping me improve my Italian. Every weekday my host sisters (there were three: Martina, 17, Giorgia, 15, and Alessia, 11) and I would wake up before eight, put on our lime green animatore t-shirts, and bike across town to our oratorio. From 9 AM to 6 PM I was outside helping coordinate activities and running around with the kids. Although by lunchtime they had usually drained my energy, I learned more from those kids than I had thought I would. By interacting with them and by watching how they interacted with each other I noticed differences between Italian and American interactions. For one, some of the stereotypes are true: Italians talk with their hands. Stefano, a boy of 11, would clasp his hands as if in prayer and shake them at you with gusto if he wasn’t getting what he wanted. Giulia, also 11, would pinch her fingers and shake them deliberately at the boys when they would hog the ball. The variety of hand motions are important because they each convey very specific and nuanced meanings. Like words, the hand motions are an essential part of communication.
In Italy I reveled in the organized chaos. In fact, the constant motion was comforting and once I got used to the fact that the rules were very loose, or even nonexistent, it was almost relaxing. The oratorio undertook field trips that would have seemed impossible, at least to the suburban moms of America. One Friday we took over one hundred kids on a 30 km bike ride through town streets, on the highway, past a winding river, on a dusty road, finally arriving at a park in Brianza. We trekked through long grass and woods, fields of flowers, and over bridges. There was something about the way the kids behaved so freely that made it feel different from being in America.
Of course it’s impossible to talk about Italy without talking about the food. Meals are an event in Italy. At the oratorio I helped set up lunch tables, complete with placemats and silverware. The kids would sit at the tables with their friends and wait, somewhat impatiently, to be served. They had a first course of pasta (choice of tomato or pesto sauce and complete with grated cheese), a second course of meat and vegetable, and a small dessert. The kids would sometimes complain that the food was gross, but it was better than anything I had seen in an American school cafeteria. The ingredients were fresh and prepared well. On the first day the priest in charge even apologized profusely for not having a second course. The food all tasted delicious, but was really made special by the people who sat around the table.
It is these same people that have left a lasting impression on me. Italy, as beautiful as it is (they call it Bel Paese), is special to me because of the people there. I’ll always remember sitting on the couch with Alessia, listening to Ed Sheeran’s new album and translating the lyrics for her. Or playing soccer with little Stefano, who would yell “Grande… Big” after a good play and pinch my cheeks. Among other things, these people and our shared experiences are what I’ll remember most. Travelling abroad is a wonderful opportunity, and connecting with people around the world makes it even better. I am so grateful that I got to experience the sense of community and love in Binzago, and that I get to extend that sense of community and love across the Atlantic. When you have friends in different time zones, the world is not as different or big as it may seem. To my friends in Italy: ci vediamo presto. Il mondo è un posto più bello con tutti voi.
This article was published in the Fall 2017 issue, Hidden Gems.
About the writer
Lauren McBrearty is from Rocky Point, New York. Her favorite city is Florence, Italy because it combines a rich history with the vitality of a modern city in a way that makes simply wandering the streets feel timeless and romantic.
Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.
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