LA GIUSTA DIMENSIONE
At my present level of acquiring a very modest capability in the Italian language, my translations into English are still something of an approximation. La giusta dimensione, by my loose linguistic reckoning, I take to suggest that something has ‘just the right size.’ This concept is being factored into my current stage of development in attempting to fathom how the Italian language reveals something about the Italian Soul. I think I am finding a parallel with the Italian concept I wrote about earlier – Quanta Basta – Just Enough. These phrases are relevant for us because they help convey our assessment of the place we now call home.
In contrast, I have a sense as a native born American the culture that nurtured me tends to think more in terms of superlatives. Perhaps it is the domination of a very competitively oriented marketplace in America that instinctively believes “Bigger is Better!” Even the fast food industry encourages Americans to ‘super size’ everything.
Soon we will be coming up on the second anniversary of arriving and beginning to settle into Ascoli Piceno in the Marche Region of Central Italy. Some mechanism we acknowledge we don’t yet completely understand determined how our instincts lead us to choose to settle into the historic central district in this Italian Provincial Capital town. By some very fortunate chain of events, we seemed to have opened ourselves up to being more trusting of our instincts and feelings in guiding the all important decision on where we were going to settle in becoming expatriates. However we came to it, the decision to settle in the center of Ascoli Piceno has turned out to be absolutely correct for us.
An early post on this Blog commented on the unique physical layout of Ascoli. Two rivers, on a relatively flat valley floor in eastern, central Italy, form the setting of this remarkable place. The rivers each delineate the north and south boundaries of central Ascoli. They then they join at the eastern boundary of central Ascoli as a continuation of the River Tronto. The river then meanders its way flowing eastward toward the not very distant Adriatic Sea. These deep river gorges define a formidable, natural defensive boundary that probably influenced settlement here dating back at least to the Iron Age.
Crossing the river gorges by bridges from central Ascoli, you enter into more contemporary neighborhoods of taller multi-tenant, higher density apartment blocks. Much of this construction bears the efficient, institutional sameness seen all over Italy much of it dating to the post World War II period need for rapidly built housing. The western perimeter of central Ascoli narrows at the head of the valley and extends a short distance into the surrounding foothills of the Sibillini Mountains of the Apennines.
Responsible and insightful civic leadership in Ascoli determined long ago to preserve the distinctly late medieval character of the center of the city. Time and the ravages of the various wars the people and territory of Italy have been subject to have not been as kind to some other places where history had left its mark. Fortunately, central Ascoli was spared much of that destruction and is an oasis suspended in time in many respects. Here, one lives a comfortable contemporary life while immersed in an immediate, tangible, very long history.
Ascoli is committed to preserving its unique cultural traditions. As an example of responsible stewardship, Ascoli has an ongoing effort to upgrade and modernize critical subterranean infrastructure while diligently preserving the culturally distinctive, historical character of this remarkable place. That level of informed, cultural responsibility, particularly during these times of economic stress, is remarkable. In Ascoli we sense a heightened civic pride in their rich cultural life that adds to the cohesive glue of this community.
We have come to feel there are many aspects of Ascoli that are unique. As a Provincial Capital it has a reported population in aggregate of something on the order of 50,000 to 60,000. But the historic center is estimated at no more than 5,000 to 6,000 people. There is simply a lower population density in the center of Ascoli. In the city center, the predominance of structures dating back to the late Middle Ages has limited the verticality of most buildings with the exception of the remaining medieval towers and churches. Heavy stone masonry, erected long before the advent of the elevator, does not encourage verticality. Additionally, thick stone interior walls reduce volume and the multiple ‘renovations’ done to many of these structures does not often offer the optimum interior living volume compared to the building’s structural footprint.
In contrast, the more contemporary apartment blocks surrounding the center of Ascoli are far more vertical and have a much higher occupancy density. The result of all of this is there is a relatively large available population in the overall Ascoli metropolitan area to support a wide range of services and cultural activities in the historic center compared to the actual density of population within the central district.
Because of the population support coming in from the immediately surrounding area, the central historic area is able to provide many choices from where to dine and where to shop. The historic center also provides variety and other alternatives including the availability of health services and cultural life. And the cultural life here is vibrant. There is justifiable pride in the ornate civic theatre and other auditoriums providing venues for cultural events. And then there are the two magnificent piazze in the civic center for meeting, greeting and being entertained. In many respects, they form the out of doors ‘community living rooms.’
This is a city that has a long history but is still very much alive today. The commitment to maintain and celebrate the historic character of this place produces an obvious level of civic pride. Like people everywhere, the Ascolani find things to complain about. But at core, these people are proud to be Ascolani. And that kind of spirit has rubbed off on us as well.
With all of that, the center of Ascoli is still quite walk-able. The fact that the central area is largely flat is welcome to stamina at my age. We have found no serious need for private, powered transportation within this area. This all results in the collateral benefit of requiring us to be out and about and physically present in the life of the city. As a result, in due course, our social network has naturally expanded. On any day of errands, we are bound to meet and have a friendly conversation with any number of people. After extraction from the everyday splendid isolation of being constantly inside a car in the U.S., actually being out into Ascoli on a daily basis we have far more opportunity for stimulating, spontaneous social networking. And no matter how exceptional the architecture, the significant benefit of becoming an expatriate here has been to become very good friends with some wonderful Italians. That is tough to do if you are just passing through on the way to somewhere else.
Shifting gears onto another subject, a few friends have asked why the Blog posts have been a bit less frequent for a while. By way of explanation, we have been preparing for the first renewal of our Permesso di Soggiorno, our permission to be residents in Italy as non-Italian citizens. It is a two-year at a time granted permission subject to renewal on meeting certain conditions just as the initial residence entry visa and first permission required processing.
Since 2010, the Italian Government has instituted a process for new, non-citizen elective residents to complete a formal program of integration into Italian life. A key aspect of this determination is the passing of a test of competency in the Italian language. It involves reading and listening comprehension, conversational capacity and the ability to write in Italian. The standard to be met is at the European Union established A-2 level, designated as ‘Basic – Advanced.’ We have had the able assistance of our ever-patient friend, Serafino, who meets with each of us privately once a week for language lessons. In addition, we use ‘Fluenz,’ a computerized language instruction program. As an aside, we have found Fluenz superior to ‘Rosetta Stone,’ which we have also used. With all of this, we like to hope there has been some progress. But at our age, excellent instruction not withstanding, we are sufficiently past having to take tests at this stage of our lives that we are, frankly, a bit intimidated just now. All we will say at this point is that the English of many of our Italian friends has been improving faster than our Italian.
For a while now we have been attempting to prepare to present ourselves, once again, to the local headquarters, La Questura, of the Italian Ministry of the Interior, National Police for permission to stay processing. And very recently, we had our first of, what will probably turn out to be, several appointments. Bureaucracy in Italy is one of those facets of life here one needs to be prepared to face with an ample supply of patience and flexibility and constantly endeavoring to remain in a state of tranquility. This apparently has nothing to do with any form of discrimination aimed at outsiders. Many of our native born Italian friends just shrug their shoulders and say, “It is just Italy!” For a country steeped in a tradition of avoiding regimentation it is probably natural that those imposing regimentation be free to ‘extemporize’ on matters of process. Local reinterpretations of requirements are the only consistent expectation in bureaucratic encounters in Italy. If the real object is trying to make sure we really want to be here by testing our resolve, we could save them and us a few steps by simply saying – Yes! We love it here! But I’m not holding out any hope on that front. But as of now, the process is underway. Our survival strategy has become a matter of having faith that the end result of the issuance of renewed permissions to remain in Italy will happen at some point in the future. How it happens, or when, or with how many frustrations is yet to be seen. But maybe this is an Italian way of reinforcing faith. It seems we are becoming more Italianized with each passing day. We just stand with both palms up in front of us and simply exclaim, “BEH!” – translatable as, “what the hell!”
As far as other items on the horizon, we leave tomorrow morning for Milan to celebrate another wedding anniversary on May 21st. After all these years, it is becoming increasingly evident the patience of the charming and delightful woman I married obviously knows no bounds. But first while in Milan, we need to consult a Tax Accountant in preparation for our first filing for Italian Income Tax. Then we will go on to the EXPO in Milan for a couple of days. After hearing about our tax requirements and starting the renewal of our residence permit, I will be in need of some diversion. However, the forecast is for rain but as far as we are concerned – “BEH!”