It’s easy to criticize, and three weeks does not a lifetime make, but I am emotionally perceptive, observant and empathetic; and I am certain people are treating one another better in southern Italy than we are here in the States. It could be the weather. It’s warm and sunny in southern Italy. I’ve always found it easier to be cheery when the sun is shining and it’s 75 degrees (that’s Fahrenheit because I’m an American, and I don’t really understand the whole Celsius thing). But I do know people, and people seemed kinder and gentler in southern Italy.
Of course, we were guests and one does tend to treat the guests better than the family. Still I had the impression Italians were more relaxed about a lot of things and just that bit of ease helped their attitudes and daily relations. In America, we’ve been taking ourselves very seriously. Maybe that’s part of it. And maybe we should take longer eating dinner. Italians sit in restaurants talking to one another for hours. That’s definitely something we’re missing. We’ve chosen fast and convenient over healthy, relaxed and full of flavor. That may have been a mistake.
Italians engage with life. They talk in endless melody, whispering with one another in cafes and on street corners, their passion flashing with the volume of their voices and the swiftness of their hands. Even men stroll arm and arm; they show affection and share an enviable intimacy I haven’t seen on the streets of New York in years.
I love Italians, and I love watching them. They ride scooters in high heels and drink wine with a freedom that’s only possible when half your population’s not in recovery. Most of the Italians I saw looked like supermodels compared to us, and they are definitely having a better time looking better, but maybe that’s wanderlust, wishful thinking and naiveté. I am guilty of all three.
Nonetheless, I do have one clear example that sums up Italy’s kinder, gentler, sexier society. In Mama Rosa’s a man came in clutching a bunch of roses. That’s the poetry of Italy. And that man passed from table to table, pleading without words, and while no one bought a rose, the whole restaurant stayed silent and allowed him the time and space to exhibit his wares, those tightly packed, bright red buds pausing over the silverware just long enough for each man at the table to shake his head, “No”; and on the rose man moved in slow silence, until he ran out of tables and went out the door. That kind of space and time are no longer available in New York City. No diner on Sixth Avenue or pretentious joint on the Upper East Side is going to let Rose Man in the door.
Even in places like Naples where the warning drums beat so readily you’re convinced zombies will steal your bag the minute you step off the train, even there the crowds felt bright and friendly. We never feared for our safety or well being while abroad, aware and mournful only of the Port Authority reality that awaited us at home. “You’re in Italy”, a friend whispered in my ear, “no one will hurt you here.”
And while no utopias exist, and I am sure that Italians are just as capable of wickedness as we are, it was disheartening to be tuned out for weeks only to tune in to an English speaking station covering another American mass shooting. Some days you want to pass yourself off as Canadian. I’ll settle for humble traveler who isn’t prone to complaint or rancor. That’s not easy for me. I’m beginning to suspect we’re all a bit addicted to the political adrenaline fueling our divisive frenzy. We could travel to the mountaintop and learn how to take a deep breath, stop long enough to realize how much energy it takes to attack and defend and then use that energy to make better meals and hang out longer with our friends. But we’d do well to avoid conversations about politics or religion at least until we get some practice recognizing grace.
Of course that leads me right to the spot where we Protestants have to take a moment to recognize our own divisions. In Italy there is one Church. I’ve heard rumors about others, and I saw a Lutheran chapel with my own eyes once in Florence, but for the most part—there is one Church with a capital “C” in Italy, and it has its own state and its own guards and its own television station, and hallways full of tapestries and The Sistine Chapel and The Pieta and huge marble altars containing the relics of martyrs. They don’t build em’ like they used to, and they are everywhere.
On a Saturday night in Lipari as the tourist season ends and life on the island returns to the locals, the church bells ring, and the priest calls full pews to prayer over his microphone. We pause, peering in the open doorway long enough to take in the scene, but not so long as to be seduced or suspected. We see the many backs and bowed heads of the faithful and with a deep sigh move on, satisfied a bit, as though we ourselves have covered our heads and gone to mass, yet humbled by the high number of faithful. In America, I suspect we put more energy into arguing about God than worshipping God. But what would it look like in the USA if we spent as much time practicing Christianity as we do debating it? Witnessing the piety of a people who built adoration into their architecture, we may remember loving our neighbors begins with being civil, respectful and polite to them. And if we have learned anything from the Italians, after we chat with the neighbor, we take our momma to church then stop at a café for a long lunch with our friends. Who knows? With new role models, we may treat one another better in no time; at least the food may improve.