For a month in Italy’s hot Sorrento sun, I woke to vespas whizzing down the narrow streets outside my window and occasionally what sounded like a number of Italians yelling when really they were just excited to begin their day. I rose to shower, however, I found my shower resembled that of a large sink-like chair with a long hose attached. I stepped outside my narrow room to my balcony. I faced another apartment building where a little grey haired lady always hung up her laundry and where neighborhood kids would practice their soccer skills in the ally below. I would head to the kitchen for my morning breakfast. A mixture of Italian and charades became my first language, as I sat munching on hot Italian style cocoa puffs and sipping espresso with a woman who only knew one word of English. Her knowing “ceiling” didn’t really help the language barrier.
Any visitor of Italy can tell of their gondola ride through the canals of Venice, the bustling markets of Rome on a Sunday morning, or the quaint feel of the cobblestone streets draped in bougainvillea flowers of southern cliff towns like Positano straight out of a Kodak commercial. However, after spending a month in the heart of a true Italian household, a more realistic picture of Italian life is clear without the help of Hollywood, the local pizza joint, or anything found in a travel guide. A vacation to Italy is a far departure from residing there with the Italians themselves.
After living abroad with Sorrento resident Anna Maria Santostasi and her family, I learned a great deal about the Italians. Their households, some would argue, are facing some of the worst problems of any European country. With one of the lowest fertility rates in the Western World, the population is getting smaller and smaller. A divorce in Italy happens every 4 minutes and unemployment is higher than the U.S. Canada, Austria, France, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. With low birth rates, high divorce and unemployment plaguing Italian households down to the corners of the boot, it would seem Italians are in jeopardy of losing their unique flavor. In the Santostasi household however, life goes on despite such predicaments and changes to typical Italian life.
I spent most of my time with Anna Maria. She was the “nonna” of the family or grandmother to non-Italian speakers. Anna did not resemble the short Italian grandmas one can find in scenes out of movies. She dressed as though she borrowed a thing or two of her grand daughter’s and seemed more hip than American teenagers. Anna Maria had one daughter, Luciangela, divorced living with her along with her two daughters Annabella, 16, and Aurora, 7. While their apartment housed four women, its size was as compact as something in New York City. Dining with these women was a whole different story.
Luciangela warned upon my arrival, “You don’t leave this house with nonna’s cooking without gaining some weight.”Italian cuisine cannot get more authentic. After my first dinner with jet lag hanging over, I thought I had eaten enough for a small country.
Anna Maria brought out a huge plate of pasta. To me, I thought that was dinner. After I finished, a plate of meat was put in from of me. And after that, a plate of vegetables stared back at me. I knew the saying “basta” or “enough” would become a daily part of my vocabulary. Old Italian love songs like Volare resounded throughout every dinner from nearby apartments.
Aside from their famous cuisine and large portions, Italians thrive on performing. Luciangela was a gymnastics teacher who was putting on a children’s play that June. Picture this. Nine and ten year olds acting out Dante’s Inferno to modern song and dance. This production was not something one sees every day.
Aurora, 7, spoke far too quickly to know if she was excited or angry about something. She, ironically named after the Sleeping Beauty princess, also proved to be quite the performer. She was in an end of the year play of what seemed to include every Disney movie ever released. The costumes were more ornate than anything I ever wore when I was seven. Her Artisocat get-up consisted of shiny white fabric, sequences, and pink fur, costing 120 Euro alone.
Annabella, 16, aspired to be a lawyer like her father in nearby Naples. She had the typical jealous Italian boyfriend. However he was welcomed like family, picking her up in his Vespa every morning for school and dining with the family each night. Annabella was not far from an American teenager. Imagine someone not liking the sound of a name like Annabella. She complained, “I wish my name was Annie, like how it is in America. I don’t like Annabella really at all. I love all American names like Taylor.”
The Santostasi’s were characters unto themselves. Living with them, I grew to know the intricacies of their family and how Italians live. While guidebooks offer beautiful pictures and recommendations of where to stay and eat, nothing comes close to getting to know the Italians personally. If one wants the true Italian experience, go live with some, but your skills at charades better be impeccable.