Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"'The time has come,' the Walrus said, 'To speak of many things.:'"

Soon I will be kissing Rome upon the right cheek and the left as I return to America for the summer. And while I will be happy to join the Italians who flee the heat and the hordes for Ferragosto, I am hoping that I am able to bring much of my Italian life to the U.S.

I want to continue to live slowly. It can sometimes take an entire day to complete just one task and for me, this translates to a much nicer pace. I arrived here as a person who multi-tasks to the point that I often get nothing done but still have an oppressive need to try and do even more. And with that marvelous clarity of hindsight, I no longer recall what I was spending so much time doing, leading me to suspect that I wasn't really doing anything. I don't have to rush and rush and rush some more on my hamster wheel. I want to stay in the present and refuse to feel guilty for sitting on the  balcony and watch people pretend to pick-up after their dogs. I want to sit and do nothing but notice the color of the underside of a leaf as the wind blows.

 I want to continue to exercise without realizing that I am. I haven't had access to a gym for nearly a year and yet I work out every day. I walk for miles. I climb six flights of stairs every time I leave the house. I have to pause when I unfurl the canopies on our balconies because my arms burn in a way that I can't achieve by lifting weights. I am in constant purposeful motion. Like a farmer. Or the Amish. Or my friend Shelly.

I want to continue to live in a consumer vacuum. (Consumerless vacuum?) Because I have little to no access to advertisements, I don't know what the latest, greatest, bestest, must-have products are. And even if I did, I have no way of obtaining them here. And even if I could, I have no place to put them. And so I have gone from someone with an obsessive need to pop into Target at least once a day um, occasionally, to someone who pretty much has no idea what I am living without.

I want to shop the little roadside stands and farmers markets, or at the very least, the outer ring at the grocery store. Because prepared foods here are few and far between. And the time it takes to prepare everything from scratch more than pays for itself in flavor.

And combining all of the above: I can't believe what I live without and yet do not miss. We've been in Rome for a year and we just bought a vacuum cleaner. (And Holy Guacamole does that thing make cleaning the floor easier!)We are like Gilligan's Island here: no clothes dryer, no toaster, no microwave, no dishwasher, no ice maker, no food processor, no electric mixer, no phone, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury, like Robinson Crusoe, it's primitive as can be. Yet somehow, this all contributes to our slower-paced, more relaxed life. I'm not claiming that everyone here lives without these things; I'm just saying that we do and I am pleasantly surprised at how little it matters.

I want to bring to America the part of me that I have developed here: the part that manages to live in a country where I can't speak the language (and yes, learning Italian is my number one priority when I return in the fall); the part that can start lane number three on a one-lane road while driving; the part that can walk up to strangers puzzling over their bigliettis on the metro and offer to help; the part that is bigger and braver and stronger than I could have ever guessed.

I want to extend myself like the Italians I encounter. I want to remember to go out of my way to help people who are struggling to speak and/or read English. I want to be the person (this part will obviously be metaphoric) who leaves their shop unattended to walk a stranger to the corner in order to give better directions. Because I have been the recipient of so many random acts of kindness that it makes my throat tight with gratitude just to think of it.

I want to keep the TV turned off (unless The Walking Dead is having a special summer season). I don't miss the mindless, inane shows that  I used to have on as background noise.  I have discovered how much I enjoy listening to music or podcasts of This American Life or the sounds of the neighborhood around me while I chop vegetables. I want to remember that so many things just don't matter. Long lines and traffic and inefficiency is a way of life here and you either accept it or go mad.

For instance:

 In the U.S., I  always used the self check-out line because the slowness of the cashier and incorrect bagging of the official grocery bagger ( Cold goes with cold! Heavy things go on the bottom! Don't mess up my stuff--I have it sorted by cabinet!) could make my blood pulse with annoyance.  And here? First of all, no one is going to bag your groceries, so I had to get off my high horse right there.  And no excuses for forgetting my cloth bags because you will have to buy every single plastic bag you didn't bring into the store. And is it too much of a bother to return your cart to the store? Is there not a place in the parking lot to half-heartedly push your cart near? Is it raining? Oh poor me. One, there are no parking lots. Two, you "rent" your grocery cart here, so if you want back that euro, you'd better return that cart. Three, it's a city. I had to accept that I don't have the luxury of being annoyed about the weather. I walk the same amount of miles in the rain or I can't leave my house.

The lone cashier at the store sits on a stool behind the counter and talks at length with a customer despite the line of 27 people waiting to check out. And if anyone cares, I certainly can't tell. It's common practice that no matter how long the line, you can put your basket of goods down to hold your place and no one will argue. In fact, chances are high that they will insist you return to your former spot even if you leave the line to grab something you forgot. And if you have been waiting for 32 minutes and finally it is your turn in line but someone appears with only a couple of items, of course you let that person go before you. Because that is the way it is. I've learned to let go and not only accept it, but to embrace it. It's a nice way to live and I am grateful to experience it. I no longer am annoyed that places are closed for several hours in the middle of the day. Because it's pretty awesome to live in a culture that values time over money. Because by extension, this way of life means that the whole family walks to my son's bus stop in the morning and we all sit down to eat dinner together every single night and my husband no longer has to bring his laptop on vacations or drop everything to go to work on a Saturday afternoon. We have the gift of time. And until we had it, I didn't realize how much we were missing it.

Some of things I will miss are things that I can't bring with me, but I appreciate nonetheless. Even if it sometimes makes my eardrums ring, I love that the Italians hold children in such high regard that their happiness takes precedence over everything.  I love that all children are met with a "Ciao bello/a!" The first concert at my son's school still says it all: a child was screeching so loudly that the performance couldn't be heard and all the ex-pats (myself included) looking around in annoyance, waiting for the child's parents to take him out of the room. And yet the Italians were clucking in loving sympathy and murmuring to each other about the poor child who must be so hungry from having to sit still for so long. We were silently begging someone to come and remove the noise from our presence and they were begging someone to let the poor suffering boy run around untethered or give him a cookie.

I like that I feel safe here. Rumor has it that the only place in America with as low a crime rate as Rome is Plano, Texas. Yes, there are pickpockets and non-violent crimes, but I can walk around freely without being harassed or feel like I need pepper spray to take the dogs out at night. I don't have to cross the street in hopes of avoiding hostile people.  I like reading the newspaper and not tripping over stories of violence against children or animals. I like that life here is filled with occurrences  like teenage boys stopping to help an elderly person in need, or the most unexpected people offering their seats to pregnant women on the metro.

With all this love for Italy flowing over me, what makes me excited to return to the States? The obvious of course is all the people that I love who live there. FaceTime and e-mail and texting are Godsends for remaining a part of each other's lives, but nothing compares to actually being together with my family and family of friends. I have a nephew who was born just as I was returning to Rome after Christmas and I can't wait to hear him giggle and smell his sweet baby head.

And books! I can't wait for real books. I always swore that as long as there was someone still publishing books on paper, I would never use an electronic device to read. Living where accessing books in English is next to impossible, I have caved. But that hasn't diminished my love for Real Books and my disdain for the coldness of e-books. So far, I have read 78 books while living here, and out of that, only three are tangible items sitting on our bookshelves.  I wish I had each and every one stacked here in their natural state, ready to be picked-up and re-read at any time.

And I'm not going to lie: I'm psyched to cart around a giant take-out iced coffee from Starbucks rather than stand at a counter downing a short of espresso.   Or have more than two choices of yogurt flavors at the grocery store. Or not have to calculate recipes from the imperial to metric system or the temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Or know exactly what o.t.c. medicine I'm purchasing at the drugstore. And the smoking laws! I can't wait to live where smoking is illegal and shameful and I don't have to smell it or breathe it or remove an ashtray from my table. And oh, driving on country back roads and see lightening bugs twinkling like tiny fairies in the corn and have cook-outs and roast marshmallows over fire pits; I look forward to it all. And it will be awesome to finally get the dog hair off our socks and not have to iron everything because I'm using a clothes dryer.

But the towels? The rough, sun-dried towels that seem to absorb the water so much better than those fluffed in a clothes dryer? The towels I'm still hanging out to dry and kicking it Italian style.


the Chicken Lady said...

Aimee, this is an awesome post. You made me cry. What a wonderful experience this has been for you. I can't wait to see you!! Reading this makes me miss you so much AND want to travel back to Italy sometime!

aet said...


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