Lessons Learned from Living in and Leaving Italy
by Denise Pirrotti Hummel
When we left America for Italy one year ago I fantasized about buying a Cinque Cento, that great ultra-compact car Fiat produced in the ’60s and ’70s. You know … going from a complicated life to a simpler one. We never did buy one, though. It would have been too small for a family of four to take weekend trips to all the wonderful countries so near by. But at least we did shed our SUV, along with a lot of other baggage, when we left America. Our life is lighter now, more fluid … I don’t think it will take as much gas to run it anymore. What did we learn by leaving America, our home, our friends and relatives, and our children’s school to come to a foreign place?
We learned to see ourselves from the outside in. Living so far from the nearest international border, we had never had the opportunity to really understand how people from other cultures perceived us—not just from the point of view of foreign policy but also in terms of how we, as Americans, confront problems, pace our days, and interact with others. Living abroad, we observed firsthand that people from two different cultural backgrounds can experience an identical set of facts, whether in real time or via newscasts, and see those facts in a completely different way.
We learned that there is good and bad, efficiency and chaos, beauty and ugliness in every culture. By comparative experience, we grew to appreciate what is good and sacred in our American society—the quality of our children’s education, our freedom to explore new ideas, air-conditioning—and to freely reject what is not—our overuse of food pesticides, our ethnocentric foreign policy, and video game obsession.
By not having a clothes dryer or a shower that one can turn around in, by not being able to communicate complex issues to school administrators or the phone company, we learned to appreciate what we have and accept the futility of wanting what we do not have. We understand now that what we thought we needed may have been a mere convenience, and what we really needed was to relish being together and being alive.
We learned that we are capable of confronting scary things like going to a school, a class, or a social engagement where no one spoke our language. When we stuck it out and succeeded, we not only gained the satisfaction from what we accomplished but also the ability to confront the next scary thing with the confidence that we will succeed. We eventually learned another language and the beauty of being able to receive and share with people with whom we otherwise would not be able to communicate.
We learned that we, like all humans, have enormous potential to grow when we allow ourselves to experience things that are unfamiliar and that sometimes the need for security keeps us trapped in a world where too much is known to us, which does not give the explorer in us room to move.
While we were here in Italy we could have been anyone we wanted to be. We were not constrained to be the lawyer-turned-soccer-mom, the overworked-business executive, the-quiet-soulful-son, or the little-brother-Tasmanian-devil. We could have taken on coveted and fantasized identities: an ex-fashion model, a famous artist, amazingly young soccer protégés. But there was no need to do that. Stripped of the constraints of our self-made titles, we realized that we are now the same people we were when we left one year ago, yet so much the better for the ability to see ourselves for all that we are inside and outside those constraints.
When we left America people asked us why we were going. The honest answer was that we weren’t really sure. Now that we are preparing to return, I know why we went. We went to re-discover who we were and what we were made of. Sometimes you have to give up everything to leave yourself enough space to let in the very thing you didn’t originally have space for: a different self-concept, an alternative perception of the world, the ability to slow down and take life at a reasonable pace.
Sitting here and knowing that when I leave this desk it will be one of the last articles I write about our Italian experience, I watch our son Alex searching frantically under the couch for his lost hot-wheels car. I realize that each one of us loses something every day. Sometimes those things are so insignificant we hardly notice by the next day or week: a sock, a marble, a pair of keys. Sometimes the losses are more lasting: an opportunity, a romance, a friendship, a special place. But if we look hard enough, we see that we’re always getting something else instead. When we left home to come to Italy, for a time we lost everything that was familiar and the luxury of being around those who loved us. When we arrived, we found what was new in our surroundings and in ourselves. One year later, as we depart from Italy to go back “home” we leave behind countless memories, a lifestyle we loved, and a new environment that gave us the opportunity to renew ourselves every day. When we arrive back in the States we will experience the peace of returning to our language, our home, our old friends and loved ones. For us, losing our everyday Italy will be profound, but the essence of what she gave us is now part of the marrow of our existence and we are better for it.