Becoming Italian

Everything reminded me of Italy. Prior to this trip, I somehow managed to frequently find an Italian connection in names, words, places, people, and restaurants. In California, I got excited over a “Tuscany Fair” sign on the way to Napa. On a business trip in Dallas, Texas, I happened upon a restaurant that was in the middle of its soft opening (we only picked it because it had a fun vibe); the cuisine, as it turned out, was Italian. In Hong Kong, there were Italian luxury brands I hadn’t yet heard of. In Bonifacio (Philippines), there was an Italian furniture store in the neighborhood where I stayed. In Nagoya (Japan), there was a large building that looked like a warehouse for shoes. From where? You guessed it: Italy. With every reminder of Italy, you’d think I was an actual Italian smiling with pride at the extent of her country’s global influence. Even something as small as a sign saying “Bello Market” on Guam was notable for me.

Now that I’m in country, my inner Italiana is basking in all things genuinely Italian. The three most notable experiences of my immersion thus far are the food, the language, and the love of calcio – soccer.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky to be surrounded by good cooks, but it seems as though cooking comes as easily to Italians as walking down the street. Most people comfortable in the kitchen often say “it’s easy” to prepare simpler dishes, but it feels like I just blink here and there’s lasagna or bucatini all’amatriciana or pasta e fagioli or homemade ravioli or torta (cake) that has magically appeared on the table.

I’ve never eaten so much cheese and pasta in my life. I’ve never seen a noncommercial (i.e. home) refrigerator so packed with formaggi (cheese) and salumi, or a pantry so stocked with pasta. So much pasta. Big pastas, curly pastas, long pastas, star-shaped pastas, flat pastas, thick pastas, thin pastas, round pastas, square pastas, colorful pastas…I could spend eternity attempting to catalog every imaginable type of cheese, cured meat, and pasta.

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I’m learning the language in more ways than one. There is the basic grammar, difficult enough on its own with the gender articles and participles and tense conjugations; then, there are le parolacce (cuss words). A friend has told me that “If you learn all the parolacce, you know half the language.” Given that I’m already sometimes called a potty mouth in English, I imagine how much more fun it would be to spout out commonplace Italian profanity as well. Even my now-frequent hand gestures are speedily morphing into Italian ones. And it’s no secret that Italians love their hand gestures.

Watching una partita di calcio (a soccer match) between Roma and Napoli one day, I’m told that if I prove to be the good luck charm Roma needs to win the game, I’m required to stay at least the next three or four months until the end of the season. With just the first goal scored by Rome, the guys are hugging each other as though they’ve already won the game. By the second goal, they’re cheering so passionately that you’d think they just won the European Cup. By the third goal, I’m encompassed in such a fierce bear hug that I momentarily forget where I am. An endless stream of parolacce zips around the room at a deafening volume. The TV may as well be on mute for all the commentary in the room. Rome wins the match, and I am invited to watch another game at the stadium. (There’s actually someone in the group who has been banned from games because he supposedly brings bad luck.)

Over the years, I’ve met so many people enamored with Italy that I’m certain I’m not the only one who’s taken to signing my emails with un abbraccio (a hug) or tanti baci (lots of kisses) for everyday communications. (Italians often use such expressions outside of the romantic sense.) The ancient architecture, the cobbled streets, the gelaterie, the caffetterie, the raised voices, the warm people, the amazing flavors, the stunning coastline, the history…there’s simply no getting over this country.

I’ve been here just over a week now and I feel an odd sense of calm. I’d like to find a way to stay, but if two months here turn out to be nothing more than a brief, life-altering moment of inspiration that propels me back to California along a new path, it will still have been worth it. If only I find some clarity of where I’m supposed to be, or go, or do, it will be worth it. It may turn out to be more; it may turn out to be less; it may turn out to be nothing. I’m eager to find out.