What is it about Italy?
On Saturday a group of 15 Americans joined me in the Umbrian hill town of Todi for a two-week immersion into Italian language and life. The group includes a high school student and his musician parents, a college student and her mother, an air traffic engineer and his wife, and many beautiful women traveling solo – from a high school ESL teacher to a hospice chaplain to an empty-nesting mom of four. From California to New York, from Arizona to South Carolina and Virginia, they were compelled to meet in this small yet vibrant Italian town for fourteen days of Italian lessons, excursions in Umbria, new friendships, delicious meals and – I expect – an epiphany or two. Some of us live in apartments with views of the rolling hills below or, in my case, of the stony side and grass-bordered steps of the imposing Romanesque church of San Fortunato. Others truly live like locals by living – and eating – with them.
At our first get-to-know-each other dinner on Saturday evening – cheeses, salumi and glasses of local wine (Grechetto, Rosso di Montefalco) at Enoteca Oberdan – Elena popped the question. It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself for much of my professional life: What is it about Italy that lures so many different people to this country and its melodic language? In other words, she could have said, what are we all doing here together in Todi? For many in the group, the discovery of an “Italian vocation” came later in life (dare I say after 40?), perhaps after many years devoted to work and/or family. Perhaps, we surmised, Italy is a place to come when we need to check in with ourselves and figure out if we are truly living the life we were intended (or simply desire!) to live. For some, the Italian way of life – which favors family, friends, tradition, sensual pleasure and overall wellness – is an utterly convincing alternative to our uprooted, work and technology-obsessed American life. Many of my adult Italian students at Speak! – including several who’ve come to Todi with me – believe they were Italian in a former life. Roberta, who’s with me here now for the second time in two years, says she has “an Italian heart”. After watching her delight in everything from simple conversations with her host families to getting her hair done at Michele’s salon to tasting her 25th gelato as if it were her first, I am convinced she is right. I wonder if Italy is where we give ourselves permission to indulge in life’s simple pleasures.
For me, Italy at its best brings me closer in touch with beauty, pure and simple. As soon as I arrive here, I realize how much my soul has been beauty-starved. Even on this cool, rainy day in Todi, I am surrounded by beauty both visual (the fog hugging the valley, the gorgeous facades facing my window, the roses and cypress trees), audible (the swallows screeching and zooming between buildings each evening at sunset, scooters motoring through narrow streets, voices echoing off the ancient buildings) and, of course, edible (i.e. the mushroom and black truffle pizza I just ate for lunch). Even the air here is perfumed, thanks to the tiglio (linden) trees and gelsomino (jasmine), which are in full bloom now. Of course, Italy has lots of ugly elements (physical, social, political), but at least during these Two Weeks in Todi, they are very few and far between.