Monday, October 17, 2011


[This is a piece begun while I was in Italy, that I've only found time to finish and post now, more than a month after returning. I hope to post a few more from the trip. Oh, and the title, "Vecchi", means "old people".]

Woman and her chili peppers, Melfi, Italy 2011

I see them everywhere in this country, especially when I go to the south of Italy--places like Venosa and Melfi, and tiny towns like Ginestra and Ripacandida--but also in Siena and Volterra, and cities in the Val d’Orcia. I mean I really see them--notice them--because I am hit with the realization that when I’m at home in the United States, they are largely absent, hidden from view. I’m talking about old people. I mean really old. Their visibility in Italy highlights their invisibility in my own country. They are there, walking on the street, sitting on benches in the public square or chairs in front of homes, nestled next to wide open windows to join the world outside or invite it in.

Window on the world, Melfi, Italy 2011

Perhaps the fact that I don’t see them much is because of where I live, but this rationale is a hard-sell, as any of my friends or family would attest to the fact that I’ve lived in a lot of places. Most of them learned years ago that if they have a handwritten address book, they should always write mine in pencil. It’s true, I have never lived in south Florida, the mecca for retirees, but those who go there to spend their “golden years” are typically faced with the reality of leaving behind friends and family, and communities to which they’ve been tied for much of their lives. This does not appear to be the case for their Italian counterparts.

I’ve asked myself why this difference might be, and have considered many possibilities, beyond differences in health as our populations age, and differences in the availability of health care throughout life. One reason for their visible presence is that in Italy, it is still very common for multiple generations to live under one roof, or in the same neighborhood, or even on the same street. Here in America, I think we have a mistaken perception of Italy being full of enormous families with lots of children. While this may have been the case a few generations ago when more people were living on farms and before flooding into urban areas, it is no longer. Italy’s fertility rate is among the lowest in Europe. But families are still close and seem large because of many branches living close together, and adult children staying “at home” later, until marriage--and sometimes even after marriage. This provides an excellent explanation for the favored Italian pastime of making out, and other related activities, in cars (you thought soccer was the national sport?). Sure, the Fiat might be very small, but at least it’s private. Kind of. One stop on my first “tour” of Napoli a few years ago was a park along the water where, in the evenings, one notices something odd about all the cars parked along the winding road. All the windows are covered with newspapers, easily held there by the steam. This explains my Italian partner’s Pavlovian response nearly every time we get in the car:

“Let’s make out.”
“But . . . we’re going to the supermarket. . .and it’s broad daylight.”
“Oh . . .right.”

It may be that I saw so many old folks sitting outside because they're waiting, watching, and wondering why the grandkids have been gone so long with the car [ahem]. At any rate, my point is that the physical proximity of lots of extended family might be a reasonable explanation for why in Italy we see more of the elderly staying at home into old age, and remaining part of the life of the community. Of course, none of this is news. I'm not the first person to take note of this. This is just my first personal experience with noticing it, first-hand. In many respects, the multi-generational household is a good thing, to my thinking, for all concerned. Psychologically and emotionally, home has got to be better than an institution when possible, and the care of family better than the care of strangers (alarmingly dysfunctional families aside). And maybe I’m becoming a bit curmudgeonly myself, but it’s got to be better for the grandkids to learn the classic Neapolitan songs from Nonna than to only learn the nails-on-a-chalkboard Italian pop songs from the radio. I’ve seen this cultural transmission in action, and three-year-old Sofia is learning well. And by the way, she’s growing up learning not only Italian, but the Neapolitan language of her grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Le signore di Pienza, Italy 2011
I’ve considered that another reason for their visibility in the public sphere, at least in the warm seasons, could be air-conditioning. It might sound strange, but in Italy air-conditioning is quite uncommon. For one thing, electricity is very expensive--this is also why you get to see everyone’s underwear in Italy, hanging on the line or over balconies. Some of it’s pretty, some of it ain’t. Not many electric clothes dryers around. Given our ever-expanding population, I’m not sure I’d recommend this practice for Americans, lest our undergarments become sails, carrying our homes or clotheslines God-only-knows where.  

Guardian of the laundry, Italy 2011
Anyway. . . I liked the anti air-conditioning stance in theory, as someone with Green leanings, but as the weeks wore on during my stay, and the raindrops stayed up in the clouds (if there even were any clouds), I confess that the Green in me started to take on a more faint, pastel hue. As I tossed and turned in my attempts to sleep in front of the fan-turned-blow-dryer, I yearned for the cool, low-humming, sealed-in sweetness of a climate-controlled paradise. Eventually, at the home of my in-laws, I was lucky enough to capture the room in the attached apartment of my brother- and sister-in-law, who were away on vacation. It had an AC unit, thank the gods.

But I noticed as we visited various towns in the south that in the heat of midday, shutters were closed against the sun and heat (one thing I love about Italy is that shutters are not mere decoration, but actually function), and people were largely hidden. Sometimes the only sign of life would be the red chili peppers hanging from a balcony to dry. Presumably they didn’t get there by themselves. But as the sun began to fall, the shutters would open to let the heat escape and let the cooler evening air in, and people began to emerge and sit outside. I wonder, would this happen if AC were in the picture? Would the temptation to remain in refrigerated living rooms keep people indoors, or could tradition prevail? Perhaps, but maybe not on the same scale that it currently does. It makes me wonder what effect AC has had on our community interactions here in the States. This need to open up homes to whatever breezes present themselves melds nicely with the hours of the evening passeggiata, a long-standing tradition all over Italy. Young and old alike venture outdoors and stroll along streets and in the piazze, with no particular destination in mind. They are strolling to stroll, and to mingle with their neighbors. I noticed frequently the elderly sitting out on chairs or benches in front of homes, and more sprightly young folks and families with children stopping to chat with them. Old men sit in the square, and before long you see the younger families join them, with children on scooters or chasing a soccer ball. It got me thinking on more than one occasion, if I’m lucky enough to grow old, this might be a good place to do it.

The passeggiata begins, Melfi, Italy 2011

I think my mother-in-law is aware of this unique state of affairs; unique at least compared to the USA. As we walk through various cities and villages in the south, she points and calls my name when there are old folks sitting on balconies looking out at the scene, or gathered on benches to share gossip or talk local politics, or what have you. In semi-hushed tones, she encouraged my photographing them as she pointed to the various gatherings of elders, and while I can’t be sure yet (our language gap is still too wide), I get a sense that perhaps she is proud of the fact that in her country, it is not par for the course to shove old people away into a corner to be forgotten.

Evening street scene, Melfi, Italy 2011

I walk to the Piazza del Campo, the main square in Siena, and there on the stone benches built into the sides of buildings hundreds of years ago they sit; sometimes just watching the world go by, sometimes in groups, talking, joking, arguing. Sometimes a younger person or two is mixed in. The generations mix here. I see in the contrada (neighborhood or quarter) where I lived a grandfather teaching his young grandson how to play the drum that is used in the historical parades and promenades during the Palio festival season, and it’s a beautiful thing. The elderly in Siena are the repositories of all that is central to contrada life, and central to their hundreds-of-years-old traditions. They are the heart that pumps that lifeblood out to the body that is the rest of the community. They matter.
A window on Giraffa contrada's victory party, Siena, Italy 2011

I’m aware that one big difference for me in Italy is that I walk. A lot. Many of these cities are pedestrian friendly, with little or no vehicular traffic. I move more slowly through Italy than I do at home, and this certainly changes what one notices and how closely one can look at a given subject. But I do ride my bike in my hometown, and still can’t say I’ve seen many old folks out and about, except sometimes at the supermarket. I’ll try to look more closely and see if maybe I’ve missed something.

Woman sits with her dog as evening falls, Ripacandida, Italy 2011

Walking through the walled city of Melfi, I come upon a group of ladies in an alley-like street off one of the main arteries of the town. They are sitting outside on chairs, shooting the breeze, when my mother-in-law, Luisa, points down the alley as we pass it, and again gestures to my camera. At first a little shy, I walk back, hold up my camera and say “Posso?” (Can I? As in, can I take your picture?). They shout back to me at the end of the street in a friendly way, in Italian. I call back to them, “Ma io non capisco bene l’Italiano . . .” (But I don’t understand Italian well), they wave me toward them anyway, speaking in Italian all the while, gesturing with their hands, seeming puzzled when I say I’m an American (puzzled because my accent is good, even if my vocabulary and grammar are not, and perhaps because this town isn’t featured prominently in popular American tourist guides). They keep talking rapidly until Luisa and Diego join me there to help facilitate conversation, and as the ladies get a little flirtatious with Diego (Luisa’s husband), everyone is all smiles. The smiles say a lot, but it’s at times like these I wish my Italian language skills were progressing more rapidly, so I could get all their little jokes and really know what the laughter and smiles are all about.

Le signore di Melfi, who chatted with the Americana, Italy 2011

It’s a great motivator to keep learning. I hope I’ll get the chance to keep going back to Italy, and one day, with more than just a good accent in my linguistic toolbox, I’ll get to stop and sit awhile, and listen, listen, listen as each little history unfolds.