Degrees of Separation
|Fitting into Italian Culture|
When the strutting, jutting and puffing hadn’t worked, he next blew his whistle and shouted ‘cinque minuti’ (five minutes). No one could say he had not tried to offer a way out, face-saving for both himself and the driver. By this time a pool of limone flavored creamy liquid was my deserved reward for my lack of attention to my cup of gelato. This was entertainment for us. While we had never experienced it, most likely this was standard procedure. As this entertainment continued to unfold, curiosity had gotten my attention, not my tarty confection. The whistle had its effect. If by then someone hadn’t noticed what was going on, it got their attention, testified to by the number of people who emerged from storefronts into the street, many the proprietors themselves in their aprons, some none too happy. Along with them and before the whistled deadline had expired, a man appeared from a nearby doorway, protested loudly to affirm his innocence, and hustled to his car. Funny thing was, so much time had elapsed by then, with cars coming and going, that the offender simple moved his car back a few feet into a freed-up space, out of no-man’s-land. Barney simply adjusted his cap, flipped his ticket book closed and strode off with an added spring in his step, proud of the duty he’d performed in maintaining order.
|The Winner by Default|
|A Centuries Old Culture|
A trait that will not go un-noticed to the average visitor is the expressiveness of their friendships. Theirs somehow extends in its intensity into another dimension, appearing to go much deeper than I can identify with. In small, hill-town Italy, where the majority of our experience originates, it is common to see men walk arm-in-arm, something the anti-virus part of my Puritanical American upbringing cautions ‘Danger Will Robinson’. I’m not exactly sure why I feel this way. I suspect it is due to the physical nature of their expressiveness that is so foreign to me. It must be why I at first hesitated with the hugs and the double cheek kisses so common among greeting and parting Italians. Thankfully, we are not in France where three kisses are expected! I can honestly say, patting myself on the back, that I’ve come a long way at least in the hugs and kisses department, but confess I am not yet comfortable arm-in-arm with the guys. The baggage of its symbolism must be weighing me down. Where I come from, men avoid contact unless as part of some contact sport, like American football. Still I envy their ability to express themselves in such an innocent and open manner. I should feel honored, not hesitant, if ever asked to promenade linked with the boys. Not only would it mean that internally my American reserve had thawed, but outwardly convey that I'm comfortable with them. More importantly, it would mean that my linked friends were comfortable with me.
Their friendships can also approach the status of extended family, many times originating in their early school years and extending well on into their senior years. One in particular stands out in my mind. For years, one of my Italian friends has repeatedly received a phone call from a close friend. I have been with him when his home phone rang. Friends since childhood, it rings every night. The caller is not expecting his call will be answered, the ring of the phone is enough, simply saying, ‘I’m thinking of you.’ And mind you, this is every night! How beautiful an expression of camaraderie. Foreign to my experience, I only wish I were the recipient of an equivalent chime.
Is Calitri somehow different, some uncharted Shangri-La? Though we certainly like to think so, the people there can’t be too far different than other southern Italians in other small towns. Yet again, maybe we lucked-out and hit the social mores, mother-lode of courtesy, kindness and hospitality.
Thus were my thoughts, limited to the scope of my observations and peppered with sketchy memories. They swirled through my mind as I wondered if a fly might have a dimensional password, just as another thunderclap bellowed and it began to seriously rain. Could the fly have been a metaphor for me ... attracted to the light of Italy yet condemned by degrees of separation to an inadequate level of comprehension? I'm not an anthropologist, yet even for them, plotting the long course of cultural evolution, so infused with social customs, in order to arrive at an understanding of what Italy is today, has to be a daunting challenge. The southern Italian's characteristic willingness to please, even to the detriment of full disclosure and at times preparedness; their slow paced, laid-back temperament; and their zestful friendships, as flavorful as their gelato, reflect the image of a resilient people.
I am no longer your average visitor to Italy. Yet the more I visit, the less I seem to understand. This is why Italy remains so wonderful and worthy of return after return. There is no explanation for southern Italy. Its face remains a convoluted mystery, beautiful, messy and confrontational all at once, sometimes as smooth as still water, sometimes flawed with ripples of imperfection. But warts are not always offensive. It depends on how we look at them. After all, warts to some are beauty marks to others.