Italy is a nation of monuments. That is well known to any American traveling to the ancient cities and towns of this amazing country. It is impossible to take a bad picture. Every iPhone paparazzi looks like a genius with postcard quality shots of the Roman forum or the Italian coastline. However, those who return to the country eventually discover that the greatest monuments are actually all around you in the people that you meet. The most enchanting moments are found not in the soaring Cathedrals but the people that you pass on their steps. On his tomb in St. Paul’s in London, Sir Christopher Wren had the Latin phrase, si monumentum requiris, circumspice: “if you seek his monument, look around.” The same is true in Italy, if you truly want to see monuments, lower your eyes, slow your pace and you will find them behind every fish stall and espresso machine.
To truly experience Italy or Sicily, you have to make a critical adjustment. Just as you have to relax your culinary limitations in Italy, you have to relax your notions of time. Modern life often breaks our days into incremental periods linked to some objective or outcome. We want something from time so we have schedules to keep, even on vacation. To put it simply, we have lost the ability to live in a moment; to experience an exchange or a chance encounter for its own worth. This is why it takes a few days for Americans to relax and adjust to Italy. It is not jet lag. It is a type of humanity lag – re-entering life as a participant, not just a user. Indeed, this trip we saw countless Chinese tours where the tourists literally videotaped their every step – walking like human Google cars. Seeing Italy through a camera lens is little different from watching it on a computer screen. It treats these sites as types of trophies to be captured rather than experienced.
I felt sorry for these camera-mounted tourist-cyborgs. They miss the moments that come from the smell, sounds, and, more importantly, the people of Italy. For example, in visiting the mountain village of my grandparents in Cianciana, Sicily (pop. 3000) we encountered a group of old men who heard that there was an American whose grandfather was named Dominick Piazza. They brought over a Dominick Piazza to speak about my family and America. A pizza shop owner, Maggelana Chiazza, would not let me pay for our meal when she discovered that I was a paisan returning home. That is a lot more memorable than one more shot of a baroque ceiling.
After a few days, you learn to stop walking and start strolling in Italy. As you slow down, people and things come more clearly into vision. When Leslie and I were shopping for some of the local ceramics in the old city of Castigia next to Syracuse, we found a shop behind a church with lovely Sicilian pieces. The owner Sebastaini spoke no English but it did not matter. We spoke in broken English and Italian as he explained the pottery and we bargained over price (which is part of the conversation in Italy).
Sebastaini had to wrap the pieces for the trip but we had to check out of our hotel and it was near closing time. No problem, he said, and led us outside to his house. He told us to ring him that night at his house and he would give us the packages. We had no hesitation to give him the money, our ceramics, and leave. That night, we went to his house and he had everything waiting for us – each items lovingly wrapped for our trip. This is Italy. That is how things are done.
Another such monument was found in the shadow of the Pantheon. As a military history nut, I often frequent antique stores with historical items. I found my dream in a small shop on a side street run by Mario Pilla (shown above). He also spoke no English. His young friend Maximo, translated for us and a beautiful relationship was born. As we bargained over prices for maces and other items, Mario was more interested in showing us his picture with John Paul II, his letter from King Emmanuel II, and a scrapbook of his life. He was one of the most incredible people that I have ever met. One of his pictures shows a young handsome man in combat gear.
It turns out that Mario served in the Italian paratroopers in World War II and jumped into Sicily with the US forces. He later became an art expert of some renown, particularly with regard to pieces by Caravaggio. Then there was the odd picture of Mario in Roman Centurion gear – an outfit that seemed a bit dated even for the Italian military. It turns out that Mario had a small role in the movie Ben Hur. We talked well past his closing time with the help of Maximo. We exchanged numbers and email addresses. When we finally had to say goodbye, it was like leaving an old friend. This is Italy. That is how fast friendships begin.
The only way to truly enjoy Italy is to put aside the many inhibitions and suspicions that build up in modern urban life like a hard calcified shell. We have long forgotten a time when people lived in the moment and relished the chance encounter with new people. There is no rush and no pretense. They often do not want your resume or your money. They really want to know you. Like any big city, you certainly have to keep your wits about you for pickpockets and the like. However, you have to take a leap of faith and trust those true Italians and Sicilians who cross your path. You will know them when you see them. They have a warm smile and all the time in the world.