It’s grey and cold in Perugia today. We only have five weeks left before we pack up and fly home.
I can’t help getting into reflective moods these days. I think about regrets and highlights. I think about the year in Italy nearing its end. I think about coming home.
Lately, whenever we bump into people, they ask us questions about our experience here and our return to America.
Several have asked us if we wish we could stay longer. The thought of leaving gives me knots in my stomach; however, I think a year is probably just right. We’ve seen the four seasons, experienced all the holidays and worked through an entire school year. We’ve had enough time to really get to know Perugia, see most of Umbria and visit 18 cities outside this region (with six more planned). We’ve lived big, and we’ve embraced each day. We’ve been observers of the Italian culture for nearly 11 months. However, by the end of June, I’ll be ready to return to where I belong. I’ll be ready to be part of my own culture and be with friends/family who really know us.
Another common question people ask is what our favorite Italian cities are. This is a tricky one to answer because Italians act offended if their hometown is not the favorite. So naturally, we agree with them. Secretly, Ray likes Florence, Tom likes Lucca, Matt and I like Rome the best.
A few weeks ago, someone asked us to describe our impressions of Italy. He wanted to know the little things that surprised us or struck us as unexpected. As an example, he commented that on a trip to America, he was amazed that people bought milk in one-gallon containers. How would you ever finish it before it expires? he asked. He also thought Costco was weird. After thinking about this question, we listed our observations:
The presence of hazelnuts. It seems to be everyone’s favorite flavor of ice cream. It’s often in chocolate bars. And many breakfast pastries and desserts have hazelnuts or a combination of chocolate and hazelnuts. I haven’t met an Italian who doesn’t LOVE HAZELNUTS.
Today’s flavors: chocolate/hazelnut/vanilla, hazelnut/chocolate-chip/grapefruit and hazelnut/vanilla/strawberry
School work is an art form. The correct answer isn’t as important as color-coding each step. It’s no wonder some of the greatest artists were Italian. Grid paper is also used to align the various components of an assignment. It’s taken the boys all year to accept the “form over content” mentality.
compare Tom’s work: September vs. May
Regionalism. Everyone is proud of their own city and their region. Being Italian is secondary to being Roman or Florentine or Perugian. At home, if I brought someone a gift from another place, it would be special, unique and cool. Here, to most Italians, it would be an insult. I tried this with Theos chocolate from Seattle. I gave some to a friend and later wished I hadn’t. Banana-chocolates from the local “Vannucci” chocolatier are a more appropriate hostess gift than an exotic brand from outside Perugia.
Gestures. Italians talk with their hands. Someone told us this is because every region has their own dialect. Sicily and Sardinia have their own language. So before the peninsula was united and schools taught standardized Italian, people relied on hand motions to help communicate.
Eating. I don’t understand how Italians eat so much and so fast. I can never keep up. I’ve seen disapproving looks when we go out to eat with friends. Someone once shook her head at my unfinished dinner and said, “What a shame. It’s better your stomach bursts than leave food on a plate.”
Drinking. At sporting events and parties, Italians don’t drink much. They act drunk, but they aren’t. In America, we drink to liberate ourselves, open up, and feel happy. Italians are like that without drinking.
The customer is always wrong. Here, you have to look out for yourself. If you buy the incorrect size, you keep it. If you buy a defective product, you keep it. There are no cash returns. You are responsible for leaving the store with the right merchandise. I’ve been burned several times, even in a restaurant. The other day I ordered cherries for dessert. The waiter brought a bowl of wrinkly, sour, old looking cherries. I could only eat a couple. When he asked how my dinner was, I explained the problem with the fruit. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said that it’s still a little early for good cherries. My fault.
Protection of children. Italians don’t leave kids alone, not even 14-year-olds. It’s considered dangerous and bad parenting. A couple times, Matt and I have left the kids in the apartment while we go across the street for dinner or on an evening walk in our neighborhood, but I’d never tell an Italian this. Once, when Tom was playing by himself right outside our apartment, he was picked up by the police and brought home. They told me that I shouldn’t let my 12-year-old play by himself outside even though it was still sunny out. Ray, in fifth grade, is not allowed to walk five minutes home alone after school. Teachers will not dismiss him without a parent.
Finally, it is becoming evident to me that Italians don’t have a lot of experience saying goodbye. This may be because an Italian doesn’t move around the country the way an American does. They usually don’t live outside the town of their birth. Many Italians live within a block of their mammas, papas and siblings. And several of our friends live in the same building as their parents. So they don’t get much practice saying goodbye. When we talk about leaving, Italians say, “Don’t worry, just come back and live here again.” They don’t seem to understand that while we may visit sometime in our life, we will never come back to live. The awkward sadness that I’m feeling doesn’t translate well.
Therefore, next month, when we say our final goodbyes and close the door to this apartment for the last time, I’m handing out postcards of Seattle with our address on it. We have room in our house for visitors and I’d love to bring some of Italy to our home. When they tell us to “just come back” I will invite them to come to America. In the meantime, there are still five weeks if anyone can make it over here.