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Living Slow in Italy - The Year in Review

Valerie Schneider

One year ago we arrived in the bel paese and planted ourselves into this ever-fascinating, beautiful place. I know, I know. It's such a cliche to say it, but time has truly flown by. It doesn't seem like that long ago, and it seems to have passed so amazingly quickly that I can't imagine how we could possibly plan to return home if we hadn't decided to extend our residency. We've gotten the hang of things and have become more comfortable with the language. Things that had confounded us at first now seem like second nature. In short, this place that was to us a foreign land has come to feel like home in a short period of time.

In one year we've had a lot of flub-ups, embarrassments, and wonderful experiences. We've made new friends and learned a lot along the way. Looking back, it's been an incomparable time - full of a range of experiences that made us laugh and cry, smile and shake our heads in frustration. But not for a minute of the past year were we bored.

In reviewing the year I realize that much of it was consumed with daily life. While we've spent some time traveling around to see other areas of Italy, we have settled into a routine here and become part of the local scene. Much of our days are filled with the normal rhythm of life - making the rounds of shops for groceries, cooking, meeting with friends, writing and working at various freelance projects, dealing with bureaucracy (which always consumes the day), staying in touch with friends and family back home, as well as showing them around and enjoying their company when they come to visit us, and studying Italian. Mundane stuff, really; and while it's fun in its own way for us, it's not always the kind of activity that makes for fascinating arm-chair reading. They are the things that make up everyone's daily routines. But looking back, I also had a few "firsts" and some more memorable occurrences along the way.

In the past year, I have ...

*Seen more churches in a year than I had previously viewed in a lifetime.

It's a phenomenon every traveler to Italy notices at some point, but how can you help it? Churches are the primary attractions in most towns. Filled with artwork, sculpture, icons, and fascinating crypts containing underground ruins, they are normally the first stop when visiting a new place. Bryan, formerly uninterested in art, has become obsessed with entering every church we come across and feels cheated if I reach the saturation point. "Please, I beg you. No more churches today!" I'll cry. Just one more, he pleads. "This one is supposed to have a finger of St. Anthony!" The body parts on display are always beyond my comprehension, but the architecture I can appreciate. Antique frescoes fascinate us both. Finding pieces of the True Cross has become like a scavenger hunt and we've now seen three such splinters.

The problem is, after so many churches in so many hill towns, they do start to run together and I can't always keep them straight in my head. Which one had the Roman marketplace below it? Where did we see the miraculous eucharist? I need to start keeping better notes.

*Become addicted to cappuccino and cornetti.

Woe to the person who tries to alter my morning ritual! I need my caffeine or I am a grumpy girl, and I prefer to have it in the form of a perfectly-brewed cappuccino while standing up at the bar with a nice, warm cornetto in hand. The day seems somehow "off" if I am deprived of this daily jump-start. My favorite is at a particular pasticceria that makes a nice, flaky croissant with a filling of almond paste. Not too sweet, not over-filled - just enough for the nutty taste and wholesomeness, this is the best one in town; but I alternate between a couple of bars and the baristas have become well-accustomed to my habits. It's nice to walk in and have them immediately start making my cup of joe just the way I like it. "Il solito," is such a wonderful word in the morning.

*Experienced multicultural mingles.

While New Mexico is frequently called a multicultural state because of the easy blending of Anglo, Spanish, and Native American traditions, I've personally encountered more people with differing ethnic backgrounds here than anyplace I've ever visited before. I have interacted with people from China, Morocco, Senegal and Romania; Australia, England and Germany; and the Philippines, Mexico, and Poland. And that's just here in one corner of Italy! I've also encountered Romans, Gladiators, and Philistines, but that sounds like a good title for a future article.

*Discovered family members.

As you already know from my October article, I found out that I have family members living in Basilicata and also met two American cousins I hadn't known before. The internet can be an awesome tool, and I've discovered that it can bring people together. I can't believe my good fortune in meeting these wonderful folks and am even more fortunate to call them "family". This joyful discovery alone made the entire year unforgettable, and I can't wait to see them again soon.

*Eaten some very strange foods.

Italian cuisine is world-renown and I, for one, am a great fan. I am a great proponent of the Mediterranean diet, love to cook it, and never say no to a plate of pasta. But I've learned that there are a few dishes a'cooking in the cucina that I could live without. Coratella, for instance. This local delicacy is made from chopped-up and stewed pieces of heart and lung of lamb. Yeah; that was my reaction, too. The first time I ate it was with a friend and I felt I had to give it a taste. I gagged down a couple little bites to show my willingness to try it, but I can assure you that it tasted as awful as it sounds. I was force-fed this fine treat on another occasion, sealing my dislike of it.

Tripe in any form disgusts me. While knowing what part of the animal it comes from doesn't help any, the texture finishes off any appetite I may have had and precludes me from ever wanting to put it into my mouth again.

Baccala, which is dried and salted cod, isn't disgusting per se, but again it's a texture thing. There is no real taste to it and yet it leaves a strange aftertaste in the mouth. While I can eat it if I must, I don't enjoy it. Besides, in a peninsular nation surrounded by sea, I don't see the attraction of a piece of dried-out, cold-water fish from Norway that resembles weather-beaten barn wood and that must be soaked in water for three days to make it edible. Not real palatable.

*Attended a movie premier.

You just never know what little opportunities will be presented to you. While spending the summer in Anzio we happened to know someone who knew someone who was giving out free tickets to the premier of a movie that was filmed in Anzio, on the very stretch of beach where we resided. The Cinecitta-made low-budget, teenager beach flick was rather funny and cute, though apparently not memorable at the box office. Seeing people we knew who were featured as extras was a lot of fun, and we got a glimpse of the stars and director during our first-ever foray into the realm of movie premiers. Not too shabby for a couple of hangers-on Americani in a small Italian town. We also discovered that Italian theaters give an intermission (smokers' break) and serve espresso instead of popcorn.

*Bared my boobs on the beach.

Now before you make a judgment on this, you should know it was entirely unintentional. During our months on the Mediterranean we spent many days trying to cool down in the surf. On one particular day, the waves were breaking strongly as they crossed a sandbar and several people were out with surfboards trying to ride them as they crested. As I stood up from the water a wave crashed over my head and, as it pummeled me, also stripped off my top. Naturally, I was facing the shore when this occurred and I scrambled to find – and reposition - the top half of my swimsuit. Luckily, as I scanned the waders along the water's edge, no one seemed to have noticed. Come to think of it, though, maybe I should be offended at that.

*Learned that my hair is naturally curly.

This is something I should have known already, you say. But twenty years in the desert didn't render my hair wavy. Not even once. Now that I live in a place with humidity I have learned that my previously-limpid locks do, in fact, have some natural get-up-and-go. Unfortunately, it is not the beautiful kind of curly one sees on Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I couldn't have that kind of luck. Nor do I have Julia's type of long, thick hair, but that's another point of angst altogether. No, what we're talking about here is more along the lines of Rosanne Rosanna Danna. It's such a nice surprise to discover that the climate can heavily contribute to bad hair days.

*Drank some fine Pecorino.

While the rest of country eats their pecorino, I prefer to imbibe mine. It is good served with the sheep's milk cheese of the same name, but this local wine has become one of my greatest discoveries. The historical, regional grape grows in this pocket of the country and produces a fine vintage of wine. If you want to impress your wine-type friends, toss around the phrase "Offida Pecorino" in a conversation and impress them with the knowledge of this little-known wine. It has a faint scent of the pecorino cheese, too. Other relatively unknown varietals in this area make me wish I knew more about wines. Alas, my vocabulary usually consists of, "oh, this is fruity," or dry, or acidic, and other such words. Maybe someday I'll take a wine course. Until then I just confidently order my vino pecorino, per favore and leave it at that.

*Sent text messages.

My reputation as a techno-idiot is well-known. I don't know the difference between a Blackberry and an iPod and quite frankly, I don't think my life is any bit the poorer for it. My cell phone at home was a basic model purchased for convenience and emergencies. Here, however, telefonini are must-have necessities in a place where it can take six months to have a land-line connected. Along with the basic tool itself, the SMS may well be what keeps Italians in touch and keeps Italy as a whole functioning. Appointments and confirmations are made, greetings and family news exchanged, and everyday details are life are completed by the use of SMS. I have now gotten quite adept at fingering the keypad to type out a message, but in the early days it took me ages and I complained that I could have turned on the computer, hooked up online, and typed and sent an email in less time. Now I see the usefulness, but still think that it would be a whole lot easier to use that same cell phone to just call and actually talk to the person rather than to exchange back-and-forth messages. But I'm still an American, after all. "Easy" isn't necessarily how things are done here. When my phone blip-beeps the tell-tale signal of an incoming message, I eagerly dig around my purse to hastily read it like everyone else.

*Argued – and won! – in a foreign language.

Sometimes the most frustrating days sprang from little events that rendered me speechless, literally, because I didn't have the vocabulary to respond. So, when I was given a bit of attitude by a bus driver and was able to gently argue with him and explain my point, it was a happy day for me. That he backed down, shrugged his shoulders, and capitulated was an absolute victory. I'm still very much in the learning curve of this whole language thing, but to me it signaled that I was making progress just when I had begun to feel that I may have reached a plateau. Of course, to offset this experience I've always argued and lost in Italian. But at least I'm at the linguistic stage where I'm conversational enough to be more assertive. Now if I can just get those all-important hand gestures down pat, I'll be in good shape.

*Experienced earthquakes.

Because of the mountain ranges running the length of the country much of Italy is an earthquake zone. I didn't realize just how much until the tremors started. Three times now I've felt the earth move and admit that it was a bit unsettling at first. In the middle of the night, the building swayed and the bedroom door clinked back and forth against its track. A weird sensation for someone who has never experienced it, so I turned to Bryan for confirmation of this strangeness, but found he'd snored his way through it. These little tremors are frequent, we're told, but haven't caused any damage in "quite some time". Not a real encouraging statement, but then we have Sant'Emidio for our reassurance. The patron saint of our town is said to protect it from destructive earthquakes. Let's hope.

*Viewed two rare Caravaggio paintings.

One of the great advantages of living in Italy is the opportunity to see some of the world's best-known masterpieces. One of the highlights for me was the chance to see a couple of paintings by my favorite artist, Caravaggio. During my college years I took several art history classes and toyed with the idea of minoring in that subject. I opted against it, one of life's hindsight regrets. But my interest in viewing art and in seeing how it impacts people emotionally remains with me. Standing in front of a painting by Caravaggio evokes something in my soul; his insight and vision to paint such descriptive scenes always astounds me. So the opportunity to be one of those allowed to enter a private palazzo and gaze up with only a handful of others at a work by the master was an awesome privilege. The Conversion of Saul is one of the precious few Caravaggio paintings still held in a private collection, and the Principessa Odescalchi threw open the doors of her palace for a few days last summer to permit the general population to enter. Only ten were allowed in at a time so we were able to really see it up close and take in the details.

Then in January we hurried to the gallery housed in the upper level of Termini rail station for a special exhibit of Caravaggio works that included The Taking of Christ. I had read Jonathan Harr's book, The Lost Painting, just before we moved to Italy and enjoyed the story and mystery of how this long-lost masterpiece was discovered. I knew that I'd probably not make a trip to Dublin to see it, though. To find out that this, along with a handful of other works, would be on display in Rome during one of my visits there was a bit of serendipity. It was a fantastic opportunity, especially after reading the chronicles of that particular masterpiece. And people wonder why we want to live here?

*Had an accidental waxing.

During a visit to a massage therapist while having my muscles relaxed by a nice lady, she mentioned that she is also an esthetician, the exact significance of which I was unsure, but she started telling me she could wax my eyebrows and upper lip. The curse of having Mediterranean blood coursing in my veins, but then every other woman around here suffers the same problems, apparently. I confess that I was a bit tuned-out as she was saying all this, but said "okay" to show that I was keeping up and understood that she could provide those services if I ever decided to take advantage of them.

Next thing I know she's slathering wax on my face and attaching linen strips to yank the stuff off. Whoa! Ah, the subtleties of language learning. I didn't denote the up-turn at the end of her sentence, which I thought was a statement but turned out to be a question. I can wax your eyebrows and lip, a statement. Can I wax your eyebrows and lip? A question. Same exact sentence formation in Italian. In my semi-zoned-out state I missed the all-important voice intonation and stupidly answered "okay," which she took as an affirmative: sure, go ahead and wax me! I will not care to repeat the experience and now question the utter sanity of anyone who willingly submits to a bikini wax.

Yes, folks, it has certainly been a memorable year, made more so by the Slow Travelers who have come along on the journey. Thanks to all of you who have encouraged us, made us laugh, and helped us generously with information. You've read my scribblings, and have sent me sweet emails. It's been a joy sharing our experiences with you, and I look forward to telling you about the next year of our Italian adventure, as well. Thanks for being such great travel companions.

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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