My Italian Life

Every time I return to Italy, I find something I had forgotten. Not my secret alley to the butcher shop, or my favorite cornetto type, or even the good-natured ribbing at Bar Bonci  (though I do find these, too). No, what I find is me. Italian me. The one I was so afraid of losing when I was gearing up to say goodbye to Spello.

It turns out, I did lose her. Sometimes it feels like I've lost her so thoroughly I don't remember that there ever was such a creature. Sometimes I can feel her there, beyond the veil, if I could just find a way to reach her. 

Each time I soak up Spello again, only to return home, I do get clearer on where in my life I find my Italian self. That clarity helps me to keep Italian me a little closer. So even though I routinely lose my Italian life in the mid-week pick-up line, I can recognize that slipping, and find ways to connect again.

I suspect each person's way of connecting with Italy will be idiosyncratic. But I'll share mine, in the hopes that it prompts you to find ways to bring la dolce vita into your daily life. No matter where you are, or how long it will be before you can recharge those Italian batteries.

Spritz parties. When we first returned home, we tried to have these every week. Now we're lucky if we get a few in a season, but whenever we have them, I feel all kinds of connected to my life in Italy. It's a simple party, which is great because stress is completely antithetical to feeling like my Italian self. I'll spell out how we do a spritz party (including the recipe for my famous focaccia pizza), but for the moment, let me just say that a spritz party involves providing a bit of food, and asking others to bring a dish to share. Simple. Everyone arrives and is handed a spritz and it's invariably a night of ready joy. Word to the wise: Next time you are going through duty-free, nab some Aperol. A one liter bottle is half the price that 750ml is here in Virginia. We're kicking ourselves for not loading up, but honestly we always assumed that duty free was a robust scam. The parts of my Italian life it gives me: conversation, lightness, laughter.

fennel on the Spello aqueduct in Umbria

fennel on the Spello aqueduct in Umbria

Herb Garden. Even if it's just a pot of basil from the supermarket on my windowsill, having fresh herbs reminds me of my Italian life. When I snap a leaf, the released fragrance brings me right back. Italy is heady with herbacious scents, and since my scent memory is one of my strongest, when I smell a bit of broken rosemary, I'm instantly back on Spello's playground, snapping a twig for my pork chop dinner. The parts of my Italian life it gives me: scent.

Outdoor space. It's taken us years, but we finally have built a welcoming and useable outdoor space. Full disclosure, save for our two grapevines, it's not remotely Italian in scope, design, or aesthetic. But. It encourages us to sit outside. Every morning I can (so weekends and summer, though I'm thinking of getting up early in the school year because I'll miss this too much), I sit in my Adirondack chair with a notebook or a book which spends most of the time upside down on my lap. To quote Anne of Green Gables, there is so much scope for imagination I just don't need my entertainments. After all, I have squirrels playing a zippy version of hide-and-seek around the ash tree and birds hopping through the grass and the wind moving through the leaves and most especially neighbors to hail as they pass by, usually walking their dogs I love to greet. Today I learned that our neighbor has a Lambretta. Do you know what a Lambretta is? Neither did I. Turns out, it's what he calls, "Vespa's older, cooler cousin." Seriously. The parts of my Italian life it gives me: A pause, slowing down, welcoming others into my life.

Dancing with Angelo in Spello, Umbria

Italian music. When American politics is burning matching holes in my heart and gut, I bust out Italian music. Siena made Keith an Italian playlist for his birthday, and that's a family fave. A funny thing I've noticed—even the most banal lyrics sound like tender philosophy when sung in Italian. Get this one by Jovanotti, "Io lo so che no sono solo anche quando sono solo." Which translates to, "I know that I'm not alone, even when I am alone." Uffa. Not nearly as good. Or this one, "L'amora sembra consumato gia." Which translates to "The love is already consumed." Not as pretty. But frankly I like the first way I heard it best (Mishearing lyrics in any language seems to be one of my most robust skills). I thought it was "Le more sembra consumato gia" ("the blackberries are already eaten", with, I belatedly realized, significant subject/verb agreement issues). My kids got a good laugh when they realized how wrong I was. In any case, whether or not I nail the lyrics, music has this way of getting beneath my stoic exterior. It sneaks in and makes me feel, you know? The parts of my Italian life it gives me: rhythm, emotion.

Conci teaches Doreen and me to make pasta in Bettona, Umbria

Cooking. When I roll out a sheet of pasta, it's impossible for me not to remember Conci guiding my hands. When I spend time researching that funny biscuit I put salumi on in Bologna, I can't help but be brought back to the wine bar where we wiled away an afternoon drinking a chilled and bubbly Lambrusco while nibbling those tigelle and playing scopa. Just like music triggers feelings in my soul, cooking and tasting embody the feeling of a memory. Even if that memory is not mine. For instance, I'll taste a ragù and the earthy, succulent flavor connects me to cooks stretching back into time immemorial. The parts of my Italian life it gives me: connection to the past, slowing down.

books in Spello, Umbria

Reading in Italian. When I'm reading every night in Italian, it keeps the language, and the country, current for me. This is how I think of it. You know that study that says that if people eat fruit for breakfast, they eat more fruit and vegetables all day long? Well, reading in Italian at night is like fruit in the morning. It flavors my dreams with Italian, and makes me clear on my intention to keep Italian words close to my consciousness. The parts of my Italian life it gives me: cadence and relevancy of language.

Making room for joy. Seems easy, but when I'm shuttling between work and soccer practice and stressing about getting dinner on the table, there's no room for the joy that my Italian self finds so effortless. So I have to combine my American need to have things planned out and my Italian need to experience life by scheduling the things that matter—walks with friends, having people over, date nights, cooking a special meal, hiking on an early spring day. The parts of my Italian life it gives me: joy, connection to the others, slowing down.

Family in Trevi, Umbria

It's by no means perfect. The hardest part is sometimes slowing down enough to notice how off-center I've become. It takes a breathing moment, a moment of not being sucked into my device or my rut, to be able to notice that I've drifted from the path of my intention. So that I can find my way home.

How about you? How do you connect with your Italian life, your Italian self, your Italian rhythm once on home soil?