The cheers in the stairway reverberated off the walls, giving us goosebumps as we waited to ascend into Scuola Mazzini in Genoa, Italy. It wasn’t easy to have all eyes on us, and my palms began to sweat as I thought about stumbling through a first conversation with my daughters’ teachers in my awkward Italian. I already had a lump in my throat, as I always do on the first (and last) day of the school year for my kids. The slightest provocation could set tears flowing, so I held steady, not wanting to cause a scene among strangers.
This was the start of the school year in our new temporary country. Maestra Gabriella had invited us to be part of the traditional welcoming parade, where all the new students and their parents would be publicly “inducted” into the world of formal education. That march up the elementary school stairs (shown above) was meant to mark the beginning of each child’s long journey to becoming knowledgeable and participatory Italian citizens.
Though my family would only be in Genoa a year, this journey would be as eye-opening and mind-expanding as a full Italian education. Academics and language acquisition aside, we would be learning both broad and subtle points about Italian culture. It proved to be a “schooling” full of delights, challenges and surprises.
The top three lessons
Whether or not you’ve traveled to Italy, chances are you’re familiar with the three “truisms” I’ll share in this post. Proclaimed by Italians themselves, they still fall under stereotypes, which we could only unpack from an American perspective. While each truism is worthy of its own book, I’ll keep it short. And I’ll share what these lessons continue to teach us, even though our year of Italian schooling is behind us.
1. “Italians love children.”
I was struck by this truism from that very first day of school. Mothers, fathers, and teachers too were unabashedly affectionate with the kids they knew. Even away from school, in everyday social settings, adults were unafraid to show simple affection to random children. This stood in stark contrast to the cautious vibe I was used to, and it evoked two distinct and opposing reactions:
1) Don’t touch other people’s children, especially if you’re a man — you could get sued!
2) No one should be afraid to show basic human affection to a child — why isn’t this the norm?!
Was it the Puritanical roots in my own culture or today’s litigious atmosphere that shaped my first thought? Maybe it would be good for me to open up to a warmer, more affectionate approach with children.
2. “Italy is the worst country for bureaucracy.”
Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was one of many to make this proclamation, and for us this stereotype proved both prevalent and unpleasant. Having lived in only two countries, I can’t say for certain that Italy is the worst, but bureaucracy is alive and well there— and a pain in the culo! We had to navigate buying special stamps to ensure documents were “official,” jump through multiple hoops just to retrieve a package or even to buy a basic cell phone plan. My Italian teacher in Genoa emphasized that no one in his country can make sense of formal instructive Italian documents. That provided a small measure of comfort: at least the locals shared my confusion about the “rules” and how to follow them.
My approach to figuring out Italian bureaucracy was to understand how Italians themselves dealt with it. Complaining about it was part of daily life. And whenever I delved further, I would get an earful about a country “buried in senseless red tape,” and an overtaxed population whose money “fuels a corrupt Mafia-infested government.” Yet aside from the periodic transit or worker strikes, I didn’t see much pushback on the system.
For the most part, Italians acquiesced when they had to and skirted the rules when they could. It was almost as though an unspoken agreement existed, requiring everyone to leave trinkets at the altar of bureaucracy in exchange for a greater detachment from the “throne” of their parliamentary republic.
3. “Italians know how to live life.”
Common phrases such as “dolce far niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing) and “la dolce vita” (the sweet life) are sacred in Italy for a reason. The typical Italian lifestyle may lack convenience and it may have a hardscrabble undercurrent to it. But it’s a deep appreciation of simple, sweet pleasures that rules the day in bell’Italia. Our year in Genoa taught me that lesson over and again, superseding every challenge we endured. (That even includes dealing with multiple rounds of lice — yes, you read that correctly, and it’s all in the book!)
This overarching takeaway from our year in Italy is one I try to remember on a regular basis. But in our “busy-ness = productive = accomplished” American culture, it’s not easy. Plus we have waves of unnerving news stories continually swirling around us. Thus finding “la dolce vita” becomes a challenging dance between staying in the calm eye of the storm and pushing oneself to create a better life. It points to the conundrum of simultaneously being both where you are and where you want to be.
Still learning from these lessons…
Though it’s been a few years since our time abroad, I’m gaining a new perspective about our American experience in Italy. During our ’13-’14 year there, we were marveled at for simply being American. People couldn’t understand why we’d want to leave our amazing country, known for rescuing their people from the fascist clutches of WWII. To Italians, Americans were a version of superheroes with the can-do ability to create a rich, rewarding life for themselves and others (thank you, Hollywood). The fact that we mustered the will, courage and means to uproot ourselves for a yearlong Italian adventure proved their stereotype of us.
If we lived in Italy today, no doubt it would be different — probably with only the older generation viewing us in the same heroic light. And I can see why. After a few years of the political storm here at home, my American lens has been distorted (or perhaps scrubbed clean) forcing me to re-see my own country. I often wonder if the way Italians described their “self-serving and corrupt” government is more in line with American reality now. If nothing else, my year of “education” in Italy taught me the right question to ask about my country’s future: will we acquiesce and find ways to skirt a government the majority doesn’t respect, or will our can-do American nature create a different, better outcome?
Making predictions is a fool’s game, so I won’t even begin to answer my own question. Instead, I’ll return to the lesson of la dolce vita and the importance of how we live.
For me that means aiming for simplicity in what I do, whenever I can: walk instead of drive; find pleasure in chores that normally annoy me; eat quality meals slowly (and with good wine!); enjoy the company of friends instead of some other “productive” thing I could be doing; hug my children (like in this photo, taken at the end of the first day at Scuola Mazzini). It’s often a struggle to do those things, but I’ve learned to circle back and again to try and make better choices for a well-lived life.
Because in the end that’s all that matters.
Per my commitment to support change-makers with every personal story I share, I found a great nonprofit with global impact that’s a perfect thematic fit with this post. Learn more in Becoming People Who Promote Education.