I went to Italy once when I was thirteen. The trip included most of my father’s extended family and excluded any relatives under the age of thirteen, I barely made the cut. As happy as I was to have made it, my visit to Rome was anticlimactic. I remember ambivalence and boredom, except for a few dinners that involved any kid’s dream: pasta and pizza. Traveling Italy as a twenty eight year old was much more exciting.
On my first night in Rome I was greeted by Steban, my host for three nights and the only couch I would surf during my three week stay in the country. He picked me up at the metro station in a modern blue Fiat that reminded me of my Dad’s old Uno back in Venezuela. He wanted to bring the motorbike he said, but there was a possibility that another person would stay with us for the night. If that was the case, the bike would not be big enough. Steban was tall and he had dark curly hair always carefully combed back and held in place by gel. Welcome to Italy.
We drove some distance to get to his house and when he opened the door he revealed a six meter square studio apartment much smaller than a traditional North American living room. How he was planning on hosting another person was a creative challenge for me but to him, it seemed as mundane as figuring out where to store an extra pair of shoes. Extreme hospitality, I learned later, is the Italian way.
My air mattress was inflated by the front door; a small balcony and a basic kitchen with everything that one could need completed a home that seemed big enough for a single man in his thirties comfortable sleeping on a twin bed. After pointing me in the direction of the most important features of the apartment, Steban told me that his mother had helped him make room for all his things “I have the best mother. No woman will ever be better than her. So no point in trying”. Judging from the crafty space saving tips and the meal that she cooked for him and he shared with me, Steban was right, no woman could compete with his mom.
My experience in Rome was vastly different depending on where I was staying. Steban’s neighborhood was next to one of Italy’s favelas and around that area I mostly saw simple apartment buildings and mom and pop shops selling an eclectic selection that varied from cleaning supplies to ice-cream; patisseries bringing fresh bread out of the oven and selling three euro wine for nine. Men sat outside cafés and women ran the register, I asked one of them where I could find a park nearby and she smiled and pinched my carb-happy cheeks “bellisima!” she said.
Italian hospitality is animated and robust. I was not able to go one day without eating a cornetto wether I was being hosted by a stranger in the outskirts of the city, being a tourist in Trastevere, or hanging out with a friend at the biggest University of Europe (La Sapienza); the Italians like to give.
I checked into my second lodging and a smiling woman with a talkative seven year old welcomed me with a sticky hug “I just finished cleaning. It is impossible in the summer”. Later that day, I saw her come back with groceries that in half an hour transformed into a divine aroma traveling from her kitchen. That day it became obvious to me that not only was Steban right about his own mother, but his sentiment probably also applied to Barbara and any other Italian mom. How could any woman compete with them? Why would any woman want to? Barbara, with her candor and her honest desire to connect with me, represented my impression of the Italian people. Warm, chatty, tanned and obsessed with tomatoes.
Don’t count on a short answer to a quick question in Italy. Italians like conversation. Context and more information is required, even if you are just asking for directions. Forget about the usual “take a right at the light.” Instead have an espresso and welcome a five minute discussion about where you are going and why. My best guess about how this happens? Italian moms.
We learn the language of caring at home. How we are treated by our loved ones forms our understanding of affection. My sense after a few weeks in Italy is that no Italian child tells his mother that they need privacy or personal space when they turn thirteen. Italians seek human connection even if it is by a heated discussion over football, like Fabio, my favorite Italian who spoke on the phone with his father every other day and every time he managed to get into what to me, sounded like an argument but to him, it was an ordinary conversation.
From Firenze to Milan. Italy’s defining characteristic is the warmth of its people. Less self aware down south, cleaner up north, more hectic in the capital, you can always count on a smile. And in just a matter of days, you will find yourself repeating what the locals say in between laughs when they feel both proud and indignant about their own culture: only in Italy.