It was five long summers ago when we left the comfortable familiarity of the US for unknown adventures of life in Europe. We didn’t know what to expect, how could we? We stepped out of the airport in Stuttgart, and suddenly everything was different. Three summers later we exchanged our address in Baden Württemberg for a new one in Bavaria. I assumed that everything would be the same, after all, it was still Germany. I would soon learn that culture of Bavaria is quite a bit different than the culture of Baden Württemberg. I was surprised to encounter this unexpected sense of foreignness.
This summer it was time for us to say Auf Wiedersehen to Deutschland, we were moving to Italy. I knew that everything was about to change. While Southern Baden Württemberg and Southern Bavaria, may be a bit more relaxed they are still Germany. Italy is, well, nearly its opposite in so many ways. So here we are, living in Rome. Following five years of life in very rural parts of Germany, how could life not change when we moved here?
It is the second week of the second month in our second country in Europe. Everything is different, almost. We are surrounded by furniture that accompanies us around the globe, our pictures, portraits and paintings now cover the walls, our favorite books are arranged on the shelves, our portable haven is assembled. The layout often changes, but our home remains essentially the same. Somehow though, here everything looks slightly out of place. My Bavarian furniture is hopelessly at odds with my Italian apartment.
Walking into our new home, we are greeted by the familiar, yet it remains strange, not yet comfortable, not yet home. It will come, it always does. Slowly, one room at a time, this foreign house begins to take on the atmosphere of home.
Sitting on our balcony, I can hear the rise and fall of melodious voices at the pool, which at times seems to compete with the cacophony of tropical birds residing in the palm trees nearby. They are sounds that are not quite home, not yet.
But with each passing morning, we become more accustomed to the sounds of the neighborhood greeting the new day. The footfalls of early morning runners, the whisking of brooms along the sidewalks, the chorus of birds singing in the dawn. They are becoming predictable, expected. We anticipate the sounds, the smells, the feelings of the new day. In the evening, I am growing used to the uneven tapping sounds coming from the apartment above me as my neighbor goes about her evening routine. It is an oddly comforting sound. Reminding me of the well-established community I have been deposited into. Day and night, I hear the constant hum of traffic, and the sporadic outburst of car alarms that intrude upon the reverie of an otherwise quiet evening.
I am enjoying this period of getting to know my neighborhood. And I am doing it slowly. I read somewhere that in Italy you should only plan on accomplishing one thing per day. For the most part, I’ve been following that rather religiously.
Our arrival here coincided with ferragosto – a time when most of Italy takes a vacation. The rest of us know it as the month of August. It was a good time to move to Rome. Things were quieter here. Most Romans left the city for cooler, quieter, more pastoral realms. While not quite a ghost town, it was, with the exception of tourists, less crowded in the streets. I took advantage of this relative calm. My first adventure was learning to cross the roads.
Rome’s streets have a reputation, as do their drivers. Even in August, it takes some getting used to. In Germany, there are lights at most crosswalks, and even where there aren’t, drivers will stop if you look like you might be thinking about crossing the street. Not here. You need to be actively engaged in crossing the street before anyone begins to think about stopping for you.
Crossing the street is something that most people learn at a young age. I grew up in a town with one stoplight. Most of the year, there wasn’t much traffic to speak of. I lived outside of this small town, on a quiet country road that was eventually relegated to a dead-end street as the turn of the century bridge connecting the two sides steadily fell into disrepair. It was an event in my neighborhood when a car turned down the road. No one could resist sneaking a glimpse out of the window to see who dared violate the sanctity of our isolated existence, and where it was they were going. More often than not it was someone turning around, as word never seemed to get out that the bridge and the road were closed.
Owing to this general lack of preparedness, I naturally assumed that crossing the street in Rome would present a bit of a challenge for me. I’ve found that I rather enjoy it. I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing when to cross is more of a gut feeling than a hard and fast rule. I take a deep breath, step into the street and have faith that my presence alone will eventually stop the endless tide of traffic. So far it’s working. The children have not quite bought into my system. They prefer sprinting across the street screaming at me to hurry up, because there are cars coming and we’re all going to die. They have a bit of a flair for the dramatic.
When I first imagined life in Rome, I imagined living within a stone’s throw of the famous centro storico. We don’t. We live at least a bus and a tram ride away from the entrance at Piazza del Popolo. I will explore those sites later. For now, I am taking time to explore my surroundings. I am becoming well acquainted with my own neighborhood.
There’s a salumeria (delicatessen) in the neighborhood that sells fantastic olives, stuffed tomatoes and pizza bianca. There’s another with entire legs of prosciutto displayed in wooden holders – it smells divine. I’ve discovered an enoteca (wine shop) with a staff that helped me choose a perfect wine for every day, and they remembered to asked me how I liked it when I came back the following week. I’ve tested bakeries, and I’ve ordered cappuccinos at the local bars. I’ve purchased flowers from the corner flower stand, where the owner throws in a few extra flowers for me, every time. I’ve found the new stand that sells bus tickets, and chatted with the gentleman who is there every day. I’ve figured out how to add minutes to my phone, I’ve found the grocery store. I’ve exchanged pleasantries with my new Italian neighbors. The people I pass on the street are becoming familiar to me. I am growing more comfortable each day.
I speak more of the local language now than I did at the year and a half mark in Germany, but I am still operating in a survival mode of conversation. I can understand about 40 % of what people say to me. Occasionally. Most of the time I smile and nod. Or say no. Usually one of the two works adequately. I’ve found that most of the time, people are willing to make an effort to understand my inadequate ramblings. They also seem to take enough comfort in my ineptitude to bring out their seldom used English. Communication, though halting, is usually a success.
I find myself formulating responses in German in my head. I find myself responding in the negative with an automatic “nein, grazie.” I have not yet gotten to the point where my ears have caught up to my head, and I am not anywhere near to being able to formulate much beyond a well-rehearsed response. It is frustrating to return to this level of speech, yet I know that given time, I will get there again.
So what are the biggest adjustments for me from Germany to Italy, beyond the obvious cultural and linguistic differences? It hasn’t been as difficult to adjust as you might think.
Unlike our move to Germany, it wasn’t completely new. We’ve visited Italy at least once each year since we moved to Europe. Unlike many people who visit, for me it was not love at first sight. Our first visit coincided with the Easter Holidays, and by that time, we were ready for a bit of sun and warmer weather. The drive down began promisingly enough, Switzerland is a breathtaking drive, and we skirted the shores of Lake Lucerne for quite a while. Our first drive through Italy was not quite as scenic. We were driving on major super highways, and like super highways anywhere, they are built for speed and ease of transport, not to encourage observation of the area’s natural beauty. I remained hopeful. I wasn’t going to judge a country solely on its highways. Our first days in Italy, we visited Tirrenia and Livorno, both of which were nearby our lodgings at Camp Darby. We had hoped for sun and warmth, but it was still cold, and then it rained. A lot. I am afraid to say that I was not impressed. But we were there for a week, and we had other towns to visit. Though we were growing a bit leery, we ventured on. The weather cleared, and over the remainder of the week we visited Collodi and Pinocchioland, Pisa, Volterra and Lucca. By the end of the week, I was in love. It wasn’t just the beautiful landscapes (which eventually we did find), and it wasn’t just the magnificent food. It was something in the very air of Italy. It is a country that forever makes me smile. Even when things are not going exactly as they should, there is a lightness in my heart here. Italian is a language that makes me happy when I hear it, and the expressiveness with which it is spoken makes everything seem bigger. Life seems less stressful in Italy.
And so, my love for Italy continued to grow as we explored Tuscany, the Dolomites, the lakes, the coast, and Puglia over the next few years. In preparation for our move to Rome, we finally visited over Easter break this year. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Quite honestly, I was more concerned with living in a large city than I was about living in Italy. But one week in Rome was all I needed, I knew that this was indeed the right place for me. I loved everything about the city, especially the energy of it. It is overwhelming action and noise and orchestrated chaos, and I adore it.
I love that I can walk into a store with six people in it and it is more chaotic there than an entire market full of people in Germany. I love Germany for its peacefulness, for the calm stillness I found in my surroundings, but I love Italy for being exactly the opposite of that.
Of course there are adjustments, things to get used to, but right now, life is still about finding my way around. I’d been shopping at the salumeria for two weeks before I plucked up the courage to ask in my pidgin Italian where I could find the meat. Which was actually more like the word for meat “carne” accompanied by a shrug and a quizzical look glance around. It got the point across, and I was told that everything could be found at the market nearby. The man behind the counter then vaguely pointed outside, although in which direction I couldn’t be certain. The following day, I managed to locate the mysterious market and I was amazed by both the selection and the quality of the produce, meats and fish I found there.
So far, one of the big things I’ve noticed is that not everything is closed on Sunday. We’ve found a small corner store that is open every Sunday. After living in Germany, where everything is closed on Sundays except the Bakery, it’s nice to know that if I need to pick up a few things, there is somewhere I can do it. Although whether this is an Italian thing or a city thing, I couldn’t say.
My son has remarked on how much lighter his school backpack is. In Germany he carry home all of his books, every single day. In his new school, he often only has a sheet or two of work. He is elated, and his back is relieved.
Aside from the fact that I’m still waiting for my phone, internet and television to be hooked up, life isn’t that different here in Italy. Or maybe it is, because I’m not really missing them at all.