Visitors to Italy often rave about the beauty of the landscapes, the quality of the food, and its impressive historical artifacts, monuments, churches and works of art. When they relate these experiences, I find myself nodding in agreement and adding my own experiences from many visits. But I have come to realize over time that there is something more than sites and food to the attraction of Italy. It is manifest by an intangible feeling that there is something special going on there that we like, admire, and enjoy, but cannot easily grasp or explain.
My family and I (13 of us, ranging in age from 5 to 77) recently spent two weeks in Sicily. We rented a large villa in a small fishing village between Catania and Taormina. Upon our return, I began reminiscing about our wonderful experience and rethinking what “secret attraction” has made us and many others value our visits so highly.
My enlightenment on the secret attraction of Italy was a three-step process: The first step was understanding Italy's history. From the end of the Roman Empire until the 1860s, Italy was not a nation. Over the years it was invaded or settled by Greeks, Arabs, Spaniards, the French, and others. Italy as we know it today was partitioned for many years. The occupiers usually commandeered the resources of the fertile land, leaving the people with little.
It was a feudal system for the most part, and not surprisingly, imprinted on Italians a mistrust of government. Even today, Many Italians believe that half the politicians are crooks and the remainder are incompetent idiots.
That led to the second step: the realization that in much of Italy, especially the South and rural areas, people depend on family because it was often the only group they could trust. The “family” could be extended to relatives by marriage or even friends.
I grew up in an Italian-American family and experienced this first hand. For a time we lived on the second floor of a two-flat building in Chicago owned by my grandparents, still a common model in Italy and among Italian migrants. The rituals of Sunday afternoon dinner were immutable: hours of cooking followed by hours of eating. Then the men napped or watched TV and the women washed dishes and gossiped. Finally, we came together and grazed on leftovers in the evening. This was a warm, passionate family bonding around food each week that taught us how to honor guests at our table. One missed this ritual only for a very serious matter, like hospitalization or death.
The final step in my epiphany was born of several incidents:
- Incident 1: I first visited Sicily in the 1970s, after being invited to a conference on childhood leukemia. A former St. Jude fellow, Antonio Russo, lived near Catania and he invited me to spend the night at his apartment and have lunch with his parents at their home. His father was a retired surgeon. They were so gracious and put up with my less than rudimentary Italian—Antonio translated most of the time.
At the end of a delightful meal, his father asked me if I liked Marsala, a Sicilian specialty wine similar to sherry. I said yes and he disappeared, returning from the cellar with a bottle that wore a thick coat of dust. He showed me the label: it was bottled in 1927, a 50-year-old bottle of wine! The wine was excellent. But more important, I was deeply touched by his kindness and the honor he paid me, an undistinguished American doctor. It was a seemingly small gesture to celebrate friendship over a simple luncheon in his home, but it had an enormous impact on me and on my understanding of how Italians live life.
- Incident 2: I went to a medical meeting in Naples. A friend had told me that Naples had a famous small shop that made and sold ties of extraordinary design and craftsmanship. The shop was near my hotel so I started walking there and by pure coincidence, ran into Carlo Croce, a friend and the eminent cancer researcher now at Ohio State University; he was in Naples at a different meeting. He said he would go with me to the tie store. We both bought ties. (Why Carlo bought a tie is a mystery because I have never seen him wear one.) He then said, “Do you know Naples?” I said it was my first visit. He then said something like, “You must let me show it to you.”
We made a date for the next day and he proceeded to show me Naples, especially its spectacular museum and Neapolitan restaurants (he vowed that Naples had the best buffalo mozzarella in the world…I soon agreed). Carlo was my personal tour guide and he would not let me pay for anything. Although he is from Rome, he loves Naples passionately and could not restrain himself from sharing its wonders with me. He saw and grabbed an opportunity to share his passion for Naples with a friend. This was another lesson in the Italian approach to living life.
- The final incident occurred in Sicily a few years ago when our family rented a villa in the town of Gaggi. The villa was owned by a native Italian (Carmelo) and an Italian-American (Philip). They were artists and lived in a remote part of the villa. They were wonderful guys and we enjoyed their company so much that we invited them to one of our dinners, on the outdoor patio, as usual. In the midst of wine drinking before the meal, I asked Carmelo, who was quite theatrical, even for Italians, “What is it about the Italian way of life that we sense and love but do not fully grasp?”
He smacked his lips, stood up straight and said, “I can tell you in two words: The Art of Living!” (OK, so it was four words.)
But he nailed it. Italians are adept at recognizing what is really important in life, what enriches everyday life. Living life fully—enjoying the moment and not missing an opportunity to enjoy life and give joy to others—is the essence of the Art of Living.
That is why most restaurants in Italy take so much pride in what they offer. That is why they prepare food based on seasonal availability, fresh from the market that day. That is why they take the time to talk with one another in the square with exquisite facial and bodily gestures to underscore their feelings and opinions.
The secret is not so secret. It is a passion for life today, not tomorrow or yesterday, but now, preferably enjoyed with a friend, colleague, or even a stranger.
Looking back, my father was like that. He took great joy in the meal at hand, whatever it was, the seasonal fruit that he remembered from his childhood, and most of all, his family. He practiced The Art of Living every day and must have passed some of that on to me.© 2013 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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