Readers of this Blog are likely to have the impression I have a fixation on the subject of ‘Retirement.’ Since that is the stage of life I am in, I guess I am simply trying to gain some perspective on what has been going on in our lives. High on that list has been adjusting to becoming Expatriates in Italy. Getting acclimated to Italy still is, and will probably continue to be, an ongoing process.
A short time ago, we passed the one-year anniversary of our arrival in Italy as ‘Elective Resident’ immigrants. On arrival, we began the process of becoming familiar with Ascoli Piceno. Our assessment stated elsewhere in this Blog remains the same – we are delighted with the choice of Ascoli to be our new home and so very grateful to our Ascolani friends for being so generously welcoming.
Over this past year, some gradual changes have been taking place in how we are responding to this new environment. Not very long ago, as I was making my way along the cobblestones of Ascoli Piceno when I realized I was doing it in something of a leisurely saunter. I was not doing my usual ‘power walk’ to get to a destination without ‘wasting time.’ Having spent so many years in the highly intensive corporate world, appearing to be very seriously engaged was essential for survival. To compound matters, I grew up in New York City commuting to High School on the subway during rush hour. In that environment, if you weren’t in a hurry, you had better get out of the way.
In something over a year, I feel I have gone through some level of metamorphosis. The initial stage was breaking through a conceptual barrier to entertain the idea of becoming Expatriates. Then came the challenge of seeing it through. It became revealing to discover how indoctrinated we had become to the idea that material possessions were a significant determinant in defining who we were. ‘Would we still be us without all this stuff?’ I’m happy to report that we are still ‘us,’ on the far side of the excess material divide. In fact, we feel like a much less burdened ‘us’ without dragging all that dead weight behind us.
And then there was the leap of faith in coming to a place we had not been before and where we didn’t know a soul. I am reminded at this point about a distinction that is sometimes made about taking risks; it is Bravery if it works and is Stupidity if it doesn’t. I really don’t know about the Bravery part. Over the years, Arlene and I have developed a high level of confidence in how well we function together as a team. And having gotten rid of so much dead weight, we felt in a better position to be able to go to an alternative Plan B if we had too. Fortunately, Plan A has worked just fine.
In the process of a year, Italy has begun to make its mark. How could it not? I suppose we had some ill-defined expectation that it would but without more intimate, in depth foreknowledge, it was difficult to anticipate exactly what would happen. Of course, as tourists, there was something in the air that was always seductive in Italy but even then we couldn’t really define it. Perhaps the cryptic phrase, La Dolce Vita, is shorthand for what one feels rather than something that can be reduced to a definition.
It takes awhile to get out of the tourist mode of running hither and yon to pack in as much ‘culture’ as one can in the limited time available. But we actually live here now! I can’t tell you how often we walk past something in the historical center of Ascoli Piceno, quietly admiring what is becoming increasingly familiar and remarking, “Isn’t it incredible, we are so fortunate to be living in the midst of all this!” Arlene has often said, “It is amazing what you see on these buildings when you stop and look up!”
When you are in a hurry your focus is on the uneven cobblestone surfaces immediately at your feet. But in taking your time, your feet soon develop the knack of safely finding their way. That provides the luxury of not looking down but now looking around and up. And therein is an important lesson about retirement; time is no longer to be struggled against, it is a precious asset to be appreciated and savored.
We are also still adjusting to the matrix that is loosely defined as ‘Italian Culture.’ It has turned out to be far more complex than I was initially prepared to grasp. There is the relaxed, engaging conviviality, the warm intimacy of acceptance and yet you sense there is also a strong sense of the assertion of an individual self. Italians can be very socially engaged yet simultaneously retaining their own identity. Personal pride is evident in attention to appearance. An Italian seems to know how to warmly engage others without surrendering who they are. Social conviviality and the shared communal, sensual immersion savoring a three-hour, multi-course meal is what it is to be Italian.
Time is also reckoned somewhat differently than what we had previously been accustomed to. The more realistic of our Italians friends talk in terms of a time to meet as “about.” Flexibly relaxed is the required order of life. You also may encounter someone who drives like a maniac to get to a restaurant to then sit in relaxed conviviality for hours on end. That facet so exemplifies the irony that is Italy. The speed with which a journey is accomplished has probably nothing to do with accommodating some idea of punctuality. For some Italian drivers, being behind the wheel is simply one more opportunity for self-expression and to make their presence known.
Speaking of expression, in a group of say ten people, there can often be upwards of ten speakers all talking at once. To be Italian is to emote – to express. Perhaps this is a factor in the renowned Italian art of the gesture. It is clearly a mechanism to reinforce the intended message but it is also a means to add an additional element of the ‘dramatic.’ It is no surprise that Shakespeare set so many of his plays in Italy. When he penned the words, “All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players,” (As You Like It, Act 2) it was not only set in Italy, he clearly had Italy in mind.
So at our phase of life we are becoming a very appreciative audience. We are beginning to allow ourselves to be absorbed into a new way to approach experience – to learn how to relax and simply be immersed into the good things going on around us.
There is a common phrase in Italy that I confess I didn’t adequately understand until starting to get the hang of it myself – ‘La Dolce Fa Niente,’ – The Sweetness of Doing Nothing. To this Type-A American, that sounded deadly. But I am beginning to grasp ‘Doing Nothing’ is really doing something. It is slowing down to take the time to free up the senses to lose yourself in the moment. It is incredible how much richness there is in that wonderful experience. Too much can be missed when in too big a hurry. And now in retirement we are at last afforded the luxury of taking the time to engage what is really enhancing our lives.
There is an irony involved in this overall picture; we worked so very hard for so very long and were always in such a hurry apparently so we could finally have an opportunity to slow down and relax and just bask in – La Dolce Fa Niente.