The other day, we joined a guided, three hour walking tour of Ascoli. At the outset, the guide asked, “How many tourists are in the group?” Appropriately, neither Arlene nor I raised our hands. It was one of those little reminders we fortunately get that we actually now belong here – we aren’t visitors!
But being stranieri, resident foreigners, in a land different than where you have spent your life up to now is quite a new experience for us. It has been a little over four months since we first stepped onto the ground in Ascoli. There has been the inevitable, readjusting to do – in particular, overcoming the challenge of attempting to communicate in a language other than our own.
From the minimal amount of Italian we acquired on previous visits to Italy, augmented by Rosetta Stone, we can, sort of, get by – that is until we encounter the local dialect. Then all bets are off – for now. Progress with communication seems slow at times but we are making some progress, thanks largely to the very tolerant Italians. Being ‘off the beaten track’ means there has been little necessity to use or acquire English by many of the Ascolani. As a result, most Italians are grateful for our still inadequate attempts to speak Italian. We sense some occasional amusement at our feeble attempts that we have generally found to be a source of mutual enjoyment. Thankfully, this has been a shared amusement and not condescension. Just one more element in the generally socially positive and open attitudes we experience in Italy.
When it comes to learning Italian, first, the ear needs to get retuned to new pronunciation pitch sounds and cadences. For some reason, understanding Italian doesn’t seem to work well if you are expecting it to sound like English. The vowels are all different sounding and then there is that staccato, r-r-r-rolled “R.” Each day seems to add a couple of new words and retunes the ear to the point of recognizing, ‘so that is what they are actually saying!’ And the Italian proclivity to gesticulate does wonders. Reading sign and body language turns out to be an excellent augment to an inadequate Italian vocabulary on our part.
But the most important factor in becoming so comfortable in being here is the human equation. This is where one of the important aspects of why we felt we wanted to come to Italy comes into play – the Italian people. As much as we should be careful of over generalizations and stereotypes, we have found our previous experiences in this part of the world to be reinforced. The Italians have a well-deserved reputation for being a gregarious, open and friendly people. It seems Italians by nature want to mingle and interact. I’m going to stick my neck out and say the Italian soul appears to need to affirm others and to be affirmed in the process of social contact. Added, is the size of Ascoli is large enough to provide experience options but still not so large that there is a lose of a sense of common community. Everyday, we encounter total strangers who say hello.
On our list of acquired Italian customs is to sit and enjoy an early evening aperitif. One of our favorite spots is Soremidio, Arlene has written elsewhere about this delightful place, an aperitivo bar situated on the Ascoli central crossing point. Here, the original town four districts (quartiere) meet. This spot has become our vantage point to observe the early evening ritual of the Passeggiata. This is when the people of all ages come out of their homes to slowly walk, see and be seen, to greet and be greeted, and to stop and enjoy spontaneous conversation with an enthusiasm you might expect from people who hadn’t seen each other in months only to realize they probably saw each other earlier today.
Italian social chemistry has energy and radiates warmth. As bystanders, we observe people spontaneously meeting and whose faces light up with expressions of what appears to be genuine delight. Often there is the embrace and the kiss (in the air just next to the cheek starting on the right and then moving to the left). Above all, there is direct and generally close eye contact. More often than not, a hand will gently touch the other person during the exchange. These are people who practice the discrete art of sharing tactile sensuality without giving offense – something those of us from the more reserved and less demonstrative cultures from further north in Europe have yet to adequately master.
Then there is the demographic intermingling. In the square, multi-generational families are in evidence. In restaurants, there are very frequently groups dining together rather than as more isolated couples. The meal is an extended social ritual that is expected to go on for some time. It is also recognized the young will become restless so they are often allowed to get up, walk around, and can get perhaps just a little boisterous. Boisterous that is, if you can tell from the volume of the adult conversation and laughter coming from the table. Back in the U.S., such a scene would result in at least some raised eyebrows. Over here, it is ignored because most of the other tables are doing the same thing. Many restaurants have an atmosphere of happy cacophony. How do we feel about it? – We think it is wonderful these people openly enjoy each other that much.
Then there is also an ever-present group dynamic. During the day, older men who are there to solve the problems of the world, populate the piazza. I’ll have to go and join them once any capability in the Ascolani dialect actually exists. Then later in the day, the teenage set takes custody of the sixteenth century logia. But everyone is intermingling with every other age group in recognition of each other’s presence and their absolute right to be there. Even the ever-present canine contingent is there with their proud owners to intermingle and acknowledge each other.
Being by nature gregarious people, many Italians seem to have a natural curiosity about people they have not yet gotten to know. We frankly find it charming and a wonderful assist to us as we want to get to know Italians. The curiosity we sense seems warm and friendly rather than prying and intrusive. It also seems there is an ‘investment equation’ in human relations. If someone you meet is transient and just passing through, there is little incentive to get overly involved. By now, we have been introduced to others as new residents and after four months, it seems to be generally recognized we are becoming a new part of the community and not just some Americans who just missed their flight back home.
Italian gregariousness and curiosity commonly involves a genuine spark of interest as to, “Why did you choose to come to Ascoli?” For many Italians, America is perceived as the Promised Land. And then to find out we are from California only multiplies the curiosity factor exponentially. U.S. television dramas and movies are a common staple on Italian television. So much so, that it seems one of the few thriving industries is dubbing American television entertainment into Italian. As a result of a more saccharine view of the U.S. contained on exported TV programs, most Italians have little appreciation for how badly the economic collapse struck the American middle class as well. So there is an inherent belief that ‘everything is better in America’ reinforced by the fact that in the past so many Italians left Italy for the U.S.
Much of Italy has not been immune from the serious failures of the international financial structure culminating in the 2007-2008 major recession and the common, worldwide failure of the so-called recovery to restore any meaningful amount of decent wage paying jobs. One senses in our new Italian friends a deep concern for the future and the slow rate of recovery. Many younger people actively talk about going somewhere else for economic opportunity but interestingly enough; they also talk about wanting to return here once they have improved their economic prospects.
We have actually begun to meet Italians who did exactly that. They went elsewhere to become more financially secure but when they reached a stage of life where they could slow down or actually retire – they came home to Ascoli. So if our new Italian friends think being in retirement in Ascoli Piceno was a smart move to make, who are we to disagree?