Rainy Day Writing

Writing, Reading, Inspirations and Aspirations

Finding Community in a Foreign Country

I’ve been away from social media for a while. I was on an adventure. Well, technically I was getting ready for my adventure, then I was adventuring, then I was recuperating from all the adventurous activity. Now I am back to my boring life in a po-dunk railroad town in Western Washington. The old man, the dog, the rain, and I. Yeah, I’m home. And it’s November.

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But hey, I had a perfectly wonderful adventure in Italy. It  was AWESOME! I had to keep shaking my head, like my dog shaking raindrops out of his ears, just to make sure I was awake. I was REALLY  in ITALY! Sometimes when you get to do something that you’ve dreamed about and hoped for and yes, prayed for…for what seems like forever, you find yourself disbelieving that you have had the good fortune of actually realizing that dream. I felt like that a lot in Italy. I was so incredibly grateful for the reality of being there–among the ancient relics, admiring the inspiring buildings and art, walking the centuries old streets–wobbly stones and all. Here’s a suggestion should you ever find yourself there–watch your step. If you are like me, you will be wandering around looking up at all the incredible art and architecture and the picture perfect alleys with laundry hung out to dry and flower boxes below shuttered windows and warm pastel colored stucco and–Oh Shoot!, you will trip a lot. Or maybe get run over by a little fiat, but probably not, because even though American tourists tend to scatter and run for their lives when a car comes blowing down the narrow cobble stone street behind them, Italian pedestrians generally do not. They move over a teeny little bit to let the car by– unless they are in the middle of a conversation, then they generally finish talking, standing right there and gesturing with their hands, before casually stepping out of the way and letting the automobile pass. Unless it’s a Vespa, then they just lean away ever so slightly as it whizzes by. After a while, when I was walking alone, I started acted a little bit Italian and casually swaying out of the way instead of scurrying like a North American when cars approached. Of course my flare bottomed pants gave me away. NOBODY who is Italian is wearing them anymore. Probably nobody in all of Europe, I don’t know, but I suspect this to be the case. But at least I was acting Italian even if I didn’t look particularly Italian. So judging by the actions of the Italians, you are not in mortal danger walking down those incredibly narrow streets which seem like they couldn’t possibly accommodate a car, even a tiny European car, but somehow do. Although I think some Italian drivers would love us to think they will callously run us down just to expedite our moving out of their way and maybe even just for kicks.

One of my favorite activities was watching the Italians. I loved strolling around the back streets watching them talking from their windows to neighbors down below, or sitting in outdoor cafes enjoying  their little cups of cappuccino. I watched them praying in the cathedrals, walking their dogs up and down cobble stoned alley ways, or just hanging out in the public squares on Sunday afternoon enjoying wine and lunch with their families and neighbors. It felt like a way of life that I’ve often longed for, but have never had the pleasure of living. The sense of community permeated everything at those times, and made me jealous for the lifestyle, for the laid back Mediterranean attitude, and for the beautiful pastries everyone seemed to be able to eat regularly without getting fat. I had two everyday at breakfast and managed not to gain weight by walking and walking and walking. That must be the secret because the Italians eat. A lot.They eat cured meats and pork and bread and pasta and pizza and gelato and pastries. And lots of all of it, but they are a much trimmer population than we are here in the U.S. At least from the observations of myself and  of my travelling companions. Maybe Americans really should try to learn to structure our communities in such a way that we can ditch the cars more and walk or bike or train or bus around.

The cities in Italy are structured in a way that caters to pedestrians. There appears to be a plethora of small businesses in every community–bakeries, butcher shops, fruit and vegetable markets, wine shops, cafes, trattorias and ristorantes. There are not, as far as I could see, huge mega chain stores. There are grocery markets in most cities with the same types of goods we have in stores here, but they are few and far between and appear to be AN option, not the only one, for people to purchase groceries and goods. It’s a lot like the way things used to be here in the States before mega corporations like Walmart and Krogers and mega malls funded by investors crowded out the small business owners and killed the downtown cores of our cities. It reminded me of growing up in small town New England and having little delicatessens, bakeries, meat markets, shoe shops and hardware stores in the center of town. It’s still like that there.

I liked it. It was comforting and charming and it felt right. I loved walking into a little bakery and ordering (in terrible Italian) my cafe Americano, and then wandering over to the pastry display and pointing out the particular goody I wanted, paying my euros and sitting down and listening to the music of Italian’s conversing. Everything ends with vowel sounds there, like audible exclamation points. I loved feeling like a part of something–some ancient way of doing things, some tradition, some important communal ritual that is worthwhile and humanizing and positive and worth preserving. And of course the coffee and pastry was delicious. Try finding all that at Walmart.

Now here I sit, back in North America. I was ready to come home after two weeks abroad. I love the United States. I love being an American. But there was something inscrutable about Italy that spoke to that part of me that walks the dog around the smooth paved streets of my neighborhood feeling alone and separate from everyone living behind those windows or driving by in those cars, even when we wave to one another, (which I always do.) My neighborhood feels like so many others in the United States–people come here when they are done working or shopping or recreating miles away, but they don’t really live here. There is no community here. It’s just a neighborhood. It’s a collection of roads and houses and random people and dogs and cats. There is nowhere to stop and share a loaf of buccatello and a cappuccino, or a plate of proscuitto and cheese, or a glass of wine, without arranging a date and driving to a “place” to meet up, often a mall. And just try to find a decent Sicilan style cannoli, wine, or prosciutto in a mall. UGH!

Even our families live across town, or in another state, or across the country. It’s difficult to make strong and lasting connections. It’s hard to make friends in our own neighborhoods. It takes a lot more effort to create community, to be a part of something outside of ourselves. Many of us don’t even know our immediate neighbors anymore. It’s sad.

I hope someday to find a place with a more Mediterranean attitude. A laid back place where people have natural gathering tendencies and plenty of places to indulge them. Where families spend Sundays hanging out with the community of people that is their town. Where locals leave their homes on foot and gather together in public squares, eating and drinking and creating that thing I miss–that community thing. I think there are little pockets of such places in America. But it’s becoming the exception and not the rule. I’d love to see that change. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while, and something I didn’t realize I longed for so much until I observed it as a way of life in Italy. I felt a kinship with the people there. I found myself wishing I had applied myself more to learning the language so I could have engaged more with them. It was the only thing about Italy that disappointed me–not being able to communicate more effectively. Well, that and the public restroom situation. But that’s another story entirely.

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Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Italy is a beautiful place. It’s relics remain intact and are carefully preserved making it’s history tactual and approachable. It’s art and architecture is bountiful, beautiful and accessible. Italians are proud of the richness of their past and love sharing it with others.  It’s a place where tradition is respected and preserved. Family and community are cherished. Small businesses are an integral part of the communities and so they are supported and thus they thrive. I love the community of Italian people and I love their incredible country. I want to return there as soon as I can and bask in the warmth of community again. Long may it live.

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Siena Sunset

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Siena

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4 Comments

  1. Welcome home, Ilona. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts and concerns about the nature of community and connections with neighbors and people. And the cultural differences between places like the communities in Italy you spent time in compared to towns and cities in western Washington. I feel lucky to live so close to a lot of urban villages (including my own) and to know the people in my neighborhood relatively well and yet it’s interesting to me how Seattle is still largely considered a suburban city. You tackle such complicated, sensitive subjects in your blog. I like reading your insights and I wish I could respond to them in a lot more detail.

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    • Thank you kindly TF. I sometimes think our penchant for living in the country on acreage creates a bit of a social vacuum that tends to suck us in, being somewhat introverted folks. I’m glad to hear that you have a community that you feel connected to in your Urban Village. It’s a concept that has brought livability back to our cities. Now, if we can find a way to implement it in the outlying areas, we would really have something. I see a desire for it on our NEXTDOOR social media site, and there is a movement in it’s infancy out here in the sticks, which is encouraging.
      TF feel free to email me anytime you would like to communicate more in depth. I enjoy your comments and feel a kindred spirit with you when I read your posts.

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      • Thank you for the offer, Ilona. I really appreciate that.
        And about the social vacuum (the idea of which personally I find generally appealing, haha), the irony or paradox or whatever you’d call it is that even though people in the city are surrounded by thousands (or millions) of other people, it’s often not that hard for one to feel like they’re in one (social vacuum)- that certain anonymity which comes with living in an overwhelming tide of constant humanity. I guess it cuts both ways- that anonymity is an asset and security blanket for a lot of people, especially for those who know how to move in and out of it.

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      • TF personally I find myself struggling with that very thing. I’ve lived both ways–fairly anonymously here in Lewis County, and more plugged into the community the last couple of places I’ve lived. In very rural areas you can hide out or reach out, and I suppose it’s the same in the city. I do feel like the Europeans have deeply rooted traditions of family and community that have not changed as radically as our own have due to different patterns of development and migration. Our Italian tour guide shared with us how that is changing due to the difficult economic realities there, people are moving out of the country or even off the continent in search of opportunity and I think it would be a shame to see them lose those traditions.

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