For over a year now, I’ve been working on a poetry manuscript, Finding Home, about Italian immigrants from Calabria in southern Italy to San Francisco early in the last century. The research I’ve done while writing the poems has opened up whole new worlds, and deepened my understanding of Italy and Italians. When many of us think of Italy, we think of the beautiful countryside and the fantastic food, of art, rich traditions and frank, open-hearted animated people who understand that relationships matter, and who value family connections. While these qualities are in general true, the book I’m currently reading by Luigi Barzini, The Italians, draws a more complex picture of Italian character.
“This obvious predilection of the Italians for the solid, the all-too-humman, the comprehensible, the pleasurable; this constant suspicion of the honorable, the unworldly, the chivalrous, and the noble; this persistent fear of emotional traps; this concentration on private interests and disregard for public welfare; this certainty that all things no matter how alluring, will end up badly, all these have been constant characteristics of Italian life since time immemorial. They are ancient mental precautions and expedients, unconsciously accepted by almost all, developed by the people in order to get through life unscathed.” (p. 170, Barzini,The Italians)
The preference for what is tangible, stable, and for what can be understood through the senses, is something that appeals to me as someone who writes poetry, because the way a poet describes the world is through the felt experiences of physical reality–through the senses. The sensory world is the tangible expression of spiritual reality. While doing research, I came across this fabulous description on Mozzarella Mama’s blog depicting just how much the the physical world can embody a deeper expression of relationship and love for an Italian. The writer, Trisha, an American woman working and living in Italy, slips into the church in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, an old neighborhood in Rome, on a hot August afternoon, and finds herself listening in on a funeral ceremony where a middle-aged man is giving the eulogy for his mother. In Trisha’s words,
“With a tremendous sigh he put a couple sheets of paper down in front of him, adjusted the microphone and said, roughly from my memory: “Melanzane parmigiane, Ravioli con ricotta, stracchino e gorgonzola, Fiori di zucca ripieni di tagliolini al limone, these are just a few of the divine dishes mother prepared for us. These are the specialties into which she poured her love into and served to us. And now she is gone.” I gasped. Food. Love. Loss. It was devastating. I looked around at all the people dressed in black gently wiping away the tears with kleenexes. And then it came over me, the SAD WAVE. I felt it starting in my stomach working its way up to get a grip on my heart and into my brain. Just before the tears could come sliding down my cheeks, I jumped up and left the church. The August heat in the piazza was fierce, but it brought me back to my senses. “Trisha, you were about to start crying over the lost chance to eat that kind lady’s melanzane parmigiane.” (Mozzarella Mamma, “Dressed in Black”)
I’m still trying to grasp more of the particular quality of what Barzini means when he describes the Italian’s propensity for suspicion of the unworldly and the honorable, and the belief that things are bound to end up badly. But as the anecdote above so aptly describes, Italy is a country where food is not only precious, but more or less counted as a sacrament of daily life. It seems to me, most of us could learn a lot from seeing not just food, but the whole of the physical world around us in such terms, and by considering the effort of people in our families and throughout the world have given to make possible the every day items used in our homes. The effort and hard work of the world adds to, assists, and perhaps even enables our own contribution. Maybe if more of us purposely and frequently take notice of the way the physical world offers itself to us, how it reaches out to nurture and restore, we will experience ourselves in a deeper, more meaningful and felt relationship to the world and to life.