One month ago, I became an Italian home owner via a purchase in a small, medieval village hugging the boundary between Lazio and Umbria. This region has a history replete with conquering heroes, banished popes, betrayal among princes, commerce along the Tiber, and people, always people, living their lives, birthing babies, farming land, and meeting in the marketplace to gossip and share information. The word trivia is Latin in origin. It means three roads, the place people gather. As an adult woman with global professional and travel experience and a repertoire of bits of language culled from studies in French, Spanish, German, and Arabic, I balk at gaining ground in my new community through the use of the canned conversations available in a Learn Italian textbook:
“Buena sera. Oggi era molto caldo.” While this statement, “Today was very hot,” is perfectly true and has been for the last many weeks, with the change of a single word, I could be in Seattle. “Oggi era molto piovosa.” “Today was very rainy.” You see my point? Certainly, the weather is relevant but that is not why I bought a house in Italy. I bought a house in Italy to learn Italian, eat well, experience the culture, be a part of an authentic village, travel the country, and soak up the “je ne sais quoi” of European living. Below are a selection of conversation starters initiated by myself, neighbors, or visitors.
- “Are you a native speaker of English?” Naturally, in my town of 1700 souls, this question doesn’t come up. It happened that, walking home from the supermarket a couple of kilometers away, loaded down with bottles of water, essentials like bananas, tomatoes, and olive oil, I chanced to hear the word “California”. At the gas station, a gentleman was speaking Italian, if not quite like a native, then very close. Still, there was a nuance, a flattening of the syllables in the enunciation of The Golden State that just screamed “American!” Perhaps I noticed the distinction because I have taught English as a Second Language for over 20 years. So, I asked, “Are you a native speaker of English?” It turns out, Albert A. is from New York and is staying in the ancient family home in a village 3 kilometers distant. He has spoken Italian from childhood and brings that fluency with him whenever he visits. “California”, with that American twang, just slipped out.
- “The toilet isn’t working.” “Il gabinetto non funziona.” This conversation could just as easily have been “The water heater isn’t working,” or “The gas has yet to be turned on,” or “Why hasn’t the door been installed correctly?” The truth is that Italian plumbing is as fragile as a snowflake, and as vengeful as an opposition party. The house itself is several hundred years old, but the PVC pipe hanging cheek by jowl up against the flooring as viewed from the cellar, proves that the dark water outflow is newer, if less effective than its predecessor. Do you remember back in the 90s when Paris Hilton or another celebrity-famous- for-being-famous said that if people really wanted to conserve and go practically paperless, they should only use two squares of toilet paper regardless? That’s what is required in Italy. Four inch pipes might seem roomy, you should pardon the expression, but apparently, uhm, they are not.
- “How on earth did you end up in this town?” “Come hai finito in questa città?” It took a minute, but I got it. I knew finito and questa citta. No, this is not the most logical place for a non-Italian to buy a home. It is not famous, on a beach, large, near relatives, or on any tourist maps. Neither is it a town I had ever heard of before I arrived to look at property. After scavenging around in the “Italian novice” part of my brain, I managed to cobble together explanation my inquisitor understood. In English, it goes like this: After reviewing around 1000 houses online, I made appointments with 5 real estate agents, rented a car in Rome and took to the road, traveling from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic. After viewing 8 villages and a couple of dozen houses, this village, close to Orvieto, an hour and a half from Rome, teeming with real families, multiple generations, two coffee shops, two restaurants, and two grocery stores, seemed like a wonderful place to put down roots.
- “I killed a scorpion in my cantina.” “Ho ucciso uno scorpione in cantina.” Naturally, I had to look this up because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to use this conversation starter. The only other time I came upon a scorpion was in Morocco while out walking in what passes there for a forest with a most attractive young man. TEVA-shod and not paying much attention for the reason just stated, some instinct divorced from vision saw the creature before I set a foot down next to it. On that occasion, my companion gallantly dropped a large boulder on the beast and we walked on. This morning, in my cellar, or cantina, the scorpion skittered off to the right when I opened the heavy metal doors, and then it froze in position, likely hoping to go unnoticed. Ha! In the corner, near where previous owners used to make wine, was a short bar with a heavy weight on each end. Like the young man of years past, I dropped the weight on the dirt-colored insect, smushed it a few times for good measure, and went about my business.
- “Sei la signora che ha acquistato la piccola casa in Piazza Sant’Antonio?” “Are you the lady that just bought the house in Piazza Sant’Antonio?” I am tickled by the fact that even though the world and her brother know I speak very few words of Italian, it doesn’t stop people from walking right up and beginning a conversation. Down the lane from the main piazza is a retirement center, a place that houses around 15–20 old folks. They are as much a part of the community as the post office, coffee shop, and mayor. Unless one of the residents is permanently disabled, they can be found walking the town, buying groceries, and getting money from the ATM. Once such lady of uncertain years approached me with the above statement, awaited my “Si”, and then said, “Benvenuto” or “Welcome.” I almost teared up. Since then, I have heard “Benvenuto” from several folk, and the word warms me as few others could.
This evening, at a local festival in honor of music and wine, I somehow discussed with a gentleman from Rome the benefits and drawbacks of a small town: “One philosopher has said that humans should live in groups of 200.” “Un filosofo ha affermato che gli esseri umani dovrebbero vivere in gruppi di 200.” My response in Italian was ungrammatical, but comprehensible. “Ma in una citta piccolo, non si abbastanza idee largo.” “But in a small town, there are not enough big ideas.” Now that’s a conversation starter!