I know it sounds smarmy, but again and again we discover that the most memorable thing about our trips here is the Italian people themselves—so warm, genuine, helpful. I can’t even number the times I have said, sometimes several times a day, in my bad Italian, “Tu sei molto gentile! (You are very kind!) in response to some act of generosity on the part of some total stranger who took the time to help a struggling foreigner and did it with a quick smile and a gladdened heart.
That started the first time we were here, way back in 1995. We had our five-year-old daughter Amy with us, and we had heard how much the Italians dote on children, but we really had no idea. Now, Amy was an adorable tot by any objective standard: cute little redhead in pigtails, sweet disposition, a melting smile, and a sweet little voice that could charm the angels. And of course the people in Malmantile, in Tuscany where we were living, could tell at a glance that we were foreigners, although they automatically assume still that we are Germans. Lots of Germans drive across the Alps to Italy to enjoy warm weather, good beaches and a respite from their uptight, rigid social norms.
But it was still a bit of a shock, frankly alarming, the first few times that total strangers came up and offered Amy a pastry or stroked her hair. They just wanted to take a few minutes and dote on a little girl and let her (and us) know that she was very welcome in their country. One encounter was especially memorable. Malmantile was about 13 miles from downtown Florence and we often rode the bus in with the locals to tour in the morning. By noon it was far too hot even for Americans to be abroad in that torrid river bottom, so we’d hop the bus back home to the cool, breezy hills for lunch, a nap and a relaxing swim in the pool at the agriturismo where our apartment was located. But by the time we boarded the bus my little fair-skinned redhead was always flushed and sweaty. On one occasion the bus driver stopped in a little hamlet half way back to Malmantile, ran inside a bar, and proudly emerged with a cold Fanta which he smilingly handed to my daughter. Naturally we were charmed and grateful but a bit alarmed; after all, there were lots of other people on the bus. But as I glanced around to catch the mood I saw nothing but smiling faces. That, my friends, is Italy in a nutshell: not so busy and self-absorbed to enjoy vicariously a simple act of kindness to a little girl.
That trip was when we, including Amy, fell in love with this country. I cannot tell you how many kind strangers took the time to say hello to her, make her welcome, ask about her constant companion, her little stuffed squirrel named Squirrelly (Scurrili for the struggling Italians). And of course they were almost as generous with us, what with our struggles with the language, with customs, with the protocols of shopping, garbage disposal, flushing the toilet (don’t laugh; it’s a challenge sometimes), even mopping the floor of the apartment.
Over the years we have learned that a smile and a badly pronounced “Buon giorno!” is about all you need to gain an introit with most Italians. Oh, there are stinkers here, don’t get me wrong. But they are few and far between and most of them are behind the wheel of a car. I suppose it’s something about the anonymity of that position which invites a certain amount of rudeness. But there are so many more kind ones that worrying about the few is quibbling.
This trip has been no exception. Here’s a sampling of the many. There was the municipal policeman Maurizio in Agropoli who patiently explained that there was no reprieve from my parking ticket on grounds that I didn’t understand the byzantine system because these are handled by a semiprivate consortium, but then sat and filled out the forms for me, left his office and the building it is located in to go outside and point me in the direction of the post office, where, believe it or not, fines, utility bills, phone bills, you name it are paid. I was tempted to ask if I should take my postcards to the pharmacy to mail, but I was so grateful for the help that I didn't.
There was Annibale, a wonderful young man in Buccino. We had traveled eastward for an hour to see this beautiful little hill town situated on the site of an ancient city, only to discover that the archaeological museum was closed. But a local policeman made a phone call and ten minutes later Annibale was there to let us in and turn on the lights, after which he proceeded to give us a two-hour, guided tour of that incredible facility, housed in a Medieval monastery! And it wasn't too shabby either being instructed on the Roman period by a guy named Hannibal. After offering profuse thanks to Annibale, we had a delicious lunch of orecchiette and fusilli, both lovingly handmade there at the local trattoria. I asked our waiter Ciro (who had made the orecchiette, by the way) how we could find the castle and the archaeological site and he patiently explained the route, left, and two minutes later came back and announced that he and Nina, the owner’s daughter, would lead us to the sites. Which they did, after which they gave us another two-hour guided tour! We grinned like lunatics all the way home, basking in the sheer kindness of those young people.
There is Aniello and his father, Signore Botti. Aniello is a younger colleague in our search for palmenti, who lives about 25 miles away in Vallo della Lucania. Aniello is a grad student at the University of Rome but is home this summer to work and be with his family. Understand, Aniello’s dissertation concerns a Medieval manuscript in Naples, not some crazy open-air treading vats. But he’s insisted on taking us to two of the local palmenti, once insisting on driving his own car because ours was new and the roads were bad (they were a bit bumpy but paved and perfectly fine), then heard that we also wanted to see a Lucanian city nearby, called work, called his dad, and before we knew it we were meeting Signore Botti at a local bar where we were treated to caffé and pastry and then whisked off to Civitella for, you guessed it, a two-hour tour guided by both of them!
There was the young man in Stio who, when we had tried three different restaurants in a 20-mile radius looking for some kind of lunch after a hard day of hiking and touring, only to discover all three closed, on hearing our plight, took out his cell phone, called a friend to confirm that he would open his restaurant for us, then insisted on leading the way in his own car! Not to speak of the kind young man at Il Ritrovo Ristorante who saved the lives of two starving Americans (it was 3:30 pm by this time) with two delicious pasta dishes. Then there was Angelo, a native of Stio. As you may be able to tell from the photo, Angelo has some special mental challenges but like so many of those wonderful people he embraces the world with wide-eyed innocence and gusto. Angelo knew instantly that we were strangers in this tiny town and he could hardly contain his beaming enthusiasm as he asked all about our home, our sojourn in Italy, our family. By the time we left Stio, Angelo was my new best friend, insisting that I call him the next time I came to Stio so we could tour togther, and as we waved goodbye pulling out of the parking lot he shouted repeatedly in Italian, “I love Americans! I love Americans!”
There was another Angelo in the tiny hamlet of Valletelle who, when we became hopelessly turned around trying to find a Medieval church and mill, explained in great detail how to get there, then revealed that his grandparents had lived in New Jersey but had returned home for retirement and again insisted on hearing all about our native state and family. A simple explanation turned into twenty minutes of delightful human interaction. Before we left, Angelo and his mother agreed to a photo, one I will treasure because the kindness in their character is so obvious on their smiling faces.
There is Signore Borelli, owner of the local pizzeria, who treated us to incredible pizza our first night here and never fails to make us feel like celebrities when we show up for more, even sending his lovely daughter over once to announce in English that he hoped we enjoyed a wonderful holiday.
And then there are our wonderful friends, the Astones, and dear Fernando, and lovely Katiuscea. But if I start detailing the thousand acts of kindness we’ve enjoyed from these nearest and dearest, I’ll be blogging the rest of the day and most of the night. At some point “Molto gentile!” becomes “Troppo gentile!” At least, too many kindnesses to list. But we carry them in our hearts, believe me.